Bixby’s volunteer IT team keeps tech running smoothly

VERGENNES — When Addison resident Ed Place and Vergennes resident Jon Sullivan met at the Bixby Library a little more than three years ago, they quickly realized they were not getting acquainted, but re-acquainted.
It turned out that Place had been Sullivan’s 4-H shooting instructor when Sullivan was 14, about 17 years earlier. That was before Sullivan left his native Vergennes to earned his degrees in computer science and business management at the University of Vermont, and then headed to California to work for more than 12 years for a high-tech firm.
“When he came into the library I recognized him, and he recognized me,” said Place, who himself had worked for about three years out in Silicon Valley before his 28-year electrical engineering career at Simmonds Precision, now United Technologies Corp, from which he retired in 2010 as a company director.
And it also turned out Place and Sullivan had a lot more in common, including a deep appreciation of the Bixby, a commitment to volunteerism, and the skills to handle a long list of technology tasks for the Main Street library.
Library Executive Director Jane Spencer said she is amazed at how much Place and Sullivan have accomplished as the heart and soul of the Bixby’s IT committee since that 2012 meeting.
“They take the whole idea of being volunteers and take it beyond what we traditionally think,” she said. “They are very much a part of creating what Bixby Library is and will be because they have the technological expertise.”
Place and Sullivan’s work has included:
•  Working with Comcast to fix the Vergennes institution’s shaky Internet connection.
•  Replacing desktop computers and laptops at bargain prices, about $100 for refurbished desktops and $65 for refurbished laptops.
•  Finding and installing effective and user-friendly software for patrons and staff members, including badly needed anti-virus software for public computers and G-Mail and Google Docs for staff and board members to allow easy internal communication.
•  Helping set up, with Eileen Corcoran, the Wi-Fi system for cataloging artifacts in the Museum Room.  
•  Founding a new computer club, with Randy Page.
•  Working on setting up a flat-screen TV as a library electronic bulletin board in the community room.
•  Planning a program to promote science at the library, and another to allow 3-D printing to duplicate some of the Bixby’s historic artifacts. They are applying for funding to support those initiatives.
•  Working with Northlands Job Corps officials to upgrade students’ on-campus Internet access — now severely limited, making the Bixby a popular student destination — through Northlands’ Student Government Association. That proposal has approval from the Northeast office of the Department of Labor, which oversees the Job Corps program, Spencer said, but is awaiting the final OK from the national office.
•  Training the Bixby staff on how to use the new technology, and being available at the drop of a hat to solve any problems that crop up.
Spencer said not only did the library need functional, up-to-date technology, but also the support and know-how to operate it.
“They became available if we had a problem, and at first we had a lot of problems because everything was so new to us,” she said. “We were able to call them. They would come in. They would actually fix things. They would teach us. They were wonderful mentors.”
Although they work hand-in-hand, Place and Sullivan came to the Bixby while in different places in their lives. The Bixby recruited Place, a Massachusetts native, to join its board when he retired at the end of 2010, and in 2011 he formed the library’s first IT committee.
“I wasn’t really sure how I was going to help them,” Place said. “I’m good at visionary planning and stuff, so I thought I could understand what the mission of the library was and try to create some plans to do that.”
Sullivan, who has a young family, moved back to Vermont in 2012 and telecommunicated afternoons and evenings for a couple years to stay with his California employer. Soon afterward, he decided to use his mornings to take on a volunteering project and came into the Bixby during the annual Vergennes Holiday Stroll and offered his services.
“I literally just walked up to the desk and said, ‘Hey, is there anyone I could talk to about your computers here, about making them work better,’” Sullivan said.
But it’s no coincidence both landed at the Bixby. Place said his family has always enjoyed the Bixby, and he considers a library to be “ a cornerstone” of a community.
“It’s all about information,” Place said. “If you are exposed to information, you will do well in life. So I really like promoting accessibility for the information.”
Sullivan, who was homeschooled as a younger child, found the Bixby broadened his horizons — he called it “like a melting pot to me” — and sparked his imagination — he spoke of going upstairs as a child and looking through “dark and scary” stacks for books.
“I see the library as a place of understanding the world and helping my community and helping myself as well to experience more of that every day and not get stuck in this little bubble,” Sullivan said. “It makes us more compassionate toward one another and more understanding of one another.”
Despite the three-decade age difference, both said they bonded quickly. Place said they complement each other.
“One of the big jokes in the library is that we’re going to get a T-shirt, and we’re going to have an ‘I’ on me and a ‘T’ on him. I’m information. I’ll tell you what’s wrong. And he’s the technology guy,” Place said. “Basically, I was able to assemble all the issues that we had. And then Jon and I would just come in there, and we’re both engineers. And engineers are problem-solvers. We love working on problems.”
Sullivan said Place’s ability to hone in on one or two issues has been both instructive and enjoyable.
“I like to do a lot of different things, and I do them all at the same time,” Sullivan said. “But I think Ed has taught me that if we just focus on these couple things or one or two at a time and we get them done, you see the progress and you get excited about it.”
Being at different stages of their lives and careers, they offered different perspectives on what volunteering has meant to them. Sullivan said he has enjoyed being at the Bixby so much it made him re-evaluate his career — essentially, he realized he was looking forward to his time at the Bixby, not his job.
Soon, he and his wife will start what he called a “pork-centric,” food truck and catering business, Hog & Harvest, using local meats and other goods produced locally by relatives and friends.
“I actually decided to quit my job and completely change my life. I would actually say this is a catalyst for that,” Sullivan said. “When you’re really excited about doing something, you find you can’t stop thinking about it, you can’t stop working on it, all those things entrepreneurs probably find when they start the first real business that they love.”
Place said volunteering has offered him new challenges during his retirement years, allowed him to do what he believes is important work, and kept him fresh.
“I’ve talked to a few of my engineering friends, and they’ve said, ‘You’ve reinvented yourself. You’re an IT guy,’” Place said. “I feel like I’m making a very valuable contribution.”
He recommends volunteering for other retirees.
“Sometimes retired people are just looking for a place to plug in. There’s also a social aspect of it here. I come here, everybody knows me, they say hi. It’s really kind of nice,” Place said. “Now I have time to do this, so I’m able to give something back to the community.”
Sullivan said he recommends anyone with time and skills to step forward.
“Until you’ve gone and tried to introduce yourself and seen if they can even use your help, you never really know what your potential could be. So I think even opening those doors and asking those places you are interested in helping, especially nonprofits, because we know how funding goes and how important volunteer efforts are, you’d be surprised at the doors that could be opened and at the excitement and joy you could find in this little piece of your life,” Sullivan said.  
“So there’s a high reward for this small investment, in my opinion, so just give it a try.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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