Bixby engaging public, eyeing future

VERGENNES — While Bixby Memorial Free Library officials and patrons last week celebrated recent work that allows more people to enter the city landmark at the same time (see related story), the library board members are also amid a months-long process that will help them decide how the Bixby will use its new capacity.
By the end of the year, Bixby officials intend to have in place a new strategic plan that should cover at least the next three years.
In creating the new plan, they have made an effort to include as many residents and public officials as possible from the five communities the Bixby serves — Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham, as well as Vergennes.
More than 300 residents responded to an online survey created with the help of Williston consulting firm Cope and Associates.
On Aug. 11 selectboard members from Addison, Ferrisburgh and Waltham met with Bixby officials in what Bixby Executive Director Jane Spencer called a “focus group” to talk about how the Bixby could best serve their towns. Miscommunication led to Panton officials missing that gathering, and Bixby representatives plan to meet with the Panton selectboard instead.
Spencer said the meeting went well.
“We asked them what they thought their constituents needed, what we needed to do to maintain the kind of support we’re getting from their towns, and to communicate how grateful we are and that we want to be serving them,” she said.
“I think they were glad that the Bixby was reaching out and not just coming to them for money. I think there is still a lot of conversation that can still happen between us, but it was a positive focus group, and we got a lot of good information from them.”
The goal of all this work is to better focus the Bixby’s efforts to serve the towns, Spencer said.
“For the past five years or so we’ve been making a huge effort to reach out to all kinds of different people in the community,” she said. “But what we haven’t stopped to do is really take a good look and ask what does the community want? What does the community need, and how can the library fulfill those needs?”
The five towns have in recent years increased their contributions to the Bixby, something Spencer said the library board is both mindful of and grateful for.
“We have our five towns that are supporting us, and it is very generous of them,” she said. “So it’s very important to us to be servicing those communities, providing the kinds of services that are important to them. And some of that takes discovery. You need to go out and look. You need to go out to the communities and find out what they need.”
Spencer said research includes finding what the Bixby and the towns are doing right and what they are happy about, and improving those elements, and identifying new areas that the library can address.
“What are the things you love most about your community, and how can we support that?” she said. “What are the things about your community that you find are the largest problems, and how might we be able to address those with programs and information and coordination?”
In the process, the Bixby is also collecting demographic information, reaching out to local school libraries to see if the Bixby can support them as school funding is stretched thin, and touching base with other public libraries to see what they are doing that has proven to be effective.
Bixby officials have not sat down and formally analyzed data. The board will meet this week and begin doing so, Spencer said.
In looking over what she has seen herself, Spencer said she can guess a couple points the board might consider in a new strategic plan.
“We’re learning, contrary to public belief, libraries are more needed than ever. There’s sort of that belief because of e-books and audio books and the Internet that libraries aren’t needed,” she said. “But what we’re discovering is the community actually needs more community cultural meeting spaces, and this is probably one of the larger ones, along with the opera house, in all the five towns.”  
There has also been positive feedback about gatherings such as the Bixby’s writers’ groups, one of which is working on a countywide literary magazine.
“The other thing is bringing people together to experience things together. Not necessarily for a lecture, but to learn from one another,” Spencer said.
She expects the Bixby to repeat the strategic plan process every few years, and the committee responsible is also ensuring the planning and evaluation process will continue.
“When we finish writing the strategic plan, the committee doesn’t dissipate,” Spencer said. “Part of their role is to continually check and see if we’re actually fulfilling the things that we say we’re going to be fulfilling and keeping track of it, making sure that we’re actually accomplishing the things we set out to do.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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