New leadership, new tech coming to Bixby
VERGENNES — Many things have changed during Addison resident Jane Spencer’s seven-year tenure at the Bixby Memorial Library, which will conclude on June 29.
But it’s probably safe to put technology at the top of the list now that the historic Vergennes library offers a half-dozen patron computers, a strong Wi-Fi signal, e-books and e-magazines, new computer bars, and, soon, a remote printing station.
Spencer recalled what was in place when she took over. Never mind there was little technology offered to the public, the internal communication system could be charitably be called limited, although the slow process of switching from a card catalog to digitized book listings had at least begun.
“There was one phone in the building and one email address,” said Spencer, 69, who came to the Bixby after decades as the Addison Independent’s advertising manager. “Technologically we have really advanced. We have really solidified our commitment to provide technology experiences and education for everyone.”
The latest technology offerings have come along with the ongoing Phase One of a planned two-phase building makeover. The downstairs assembly room has been transformed to a sea of comfortable couches and chairs, with two computer bars at one end housing three new computers, plus outlets and charging stations for patrons’ laptops and phones. Those three desktops doubled the Bixby’s computer total; the other three have migrated upstairs.
Meanwhile, the library’s Wi-Fi has been strengthened: Bixby IT volunteer and board member Ed Place said 30 people logged on at a recent meeting. And last week workers were installing the remote printing station. Patrons will soon be able to log on and queue up their printing either at the library or from their homes, and then show up at the station and pay to have their work printed out.
Place, who along with fellow volunteers Jon Sullivan and Dave Sullivan has done the lion’s share of work on Bixby’s IT, credits both the library board of directors and Spencer’s determination to bring the Bixby up to speed.
“I think Jane’s done a terrific job,” Place said. “I came on board about the same time she did, and there are a lot of things she’s done. She’s really supportive of the technology changes. And clearly we see the community wants to be Wi-Fi connected, and this is one of the places where if they don’t have it at home they can come here, and it works very well.”
Place and Spencer can point to a number of other accomplishments in the past seven years, including stronger financial footing, a series of grants that have funded building maintenance and upgrades, increased programming that they say has raised the library’s attendance and profile, more outreach to local schools and preschools, and creation of a strategic plan that has helped guide the library board.
Place said the Bixby’s better finances derive from the five communities the library serves — Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham as well as Vergennes — increasing their budgeted support. In turn, he said, the library has earned that support by improving what it offers and demonstrating its commitment to patrons and building stewardship.
“The five towns really like what they’re seeing here, and I think a lot of that is because of Jane and the trustees working with her,” Place said.
Spencer said per capita support for the Bixby has risen from the lower range for Vermont public libraries.
“Now we’re somewhere in the midrange, and we’re not drawing from the endowment for operating budget. That’s huge, right there,” Spencer said.
Grants have helped fund much of the ongoing work, which Spencer and Place describe as the first of the two-part plan to better make use of the building. The phase includes the community living room and technology upgrades, a $100,000 effort funded by the Bixby endowment’s building fund that will soon also include a coffee bar and a new location for the library’s circulation desk to be determined by the board. (A mock-up under the dome last week was a trial balloon.)
Work costing about $35,000 to bring entrances up to fire and handicap-access code is being funded by the sale of tax credits, while tax credits and grants from the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation and the Hoehl Foundation is paying for $100,000 of repairs to roofing and parapets.
“Jane’s done a great job getting a lot of grants,” Place said.
Phase Two will include an elevator to the building’s second story, and is probably at least a couple years away, Spencer said. The cost has yet to be pinned down, and it will require a capital campaign as well as grants.
That better access to the second floor will allow the library’s museum room to be used as originally intended, as an assembly room; code now limits how many people may attend events upstairs.
“The assembly space will be ready before then, but we won’t be able to accommodate large groups of people until the elevator is in,” she said.
By then the board plans to “de-accession” most of the artifacts the Bixby has collected over the years to clear out that space, while keeping the smaller, more locally relevant items and creating a digital archive of all of them.
Then it can be used to accommodate the speakers, artists and book groups, bridge and reading clubs, writers’ workshops, tax prep and computer tutoring sessions, and other groups who increasingly have called the Bixby home during Spencer’s tenure. Place said as many as 80 or 100 people attend some events.
“She’s increased the number of programs we have here,” Place said. “She’s thought of a lot of different ways to get people in here and address the needs of the community.”
The greater number of children attending programs has also spurred Bixby officials to include larger children’s space upstairs in Phase Two, Spencer said.
As for the outreach, Spencer offered an example. The Bixby won a Cerf Foundation grant to have children’s librarian Rachel Plant trained to become a preschool STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) educator, and she recently visited six preschools in the five towns for educational sessions and handed out 1,800 books to 45 children over 35 weeks.
Place acknowledged that some of the changes, such as moving book stacks and eliminating some older books, did create some pushback in the community, at least at first.
“We’re open to criticism, and then we’ll explain why,” Place said. “I think once people understand, most of them are good with it.”
The library has hired a new library director, Marcia Harris, who will start on June 27. Spencer said Harris is a Vermont native who is currently the director of the library of the Houston Holocaust Museum in Texas, and is a former Vermont library director.
Spencer said she has met Harris briefly and is confident in the choice. Bixby board chairwoman Paula Moore could not be reached for comment.
“They searched for someone who is going to take care of this library, because they have a really strong commitment to making it the best library it can be,” Spencer said.
Spencer has mixed feelings about moving on, but is not second-guessing her decision.
“I’m leaving because it is time, and that is really the only explanation that I have,” she said. “It is a wonderful, wonderful job. It has been so interesting. I feel so lucky. I’ve worked with great people. The staff is fantastic. The board is hard-working and has such a great variety of people. The volunteers are just fantastic, and the community. But it is time. Time to do something different for me personally, and time for someone else to come in and take the reins.”
That something different includes projects, family and travel.
“I have some writing projects I’m looking forward to, and more importantly than that I have family coming. My daughter and my two grandsons are coming for five weeks this summer from Switzerland. And my other daughter is in D.C. and I’d like to visit her,” Spencer said. “My husband and I are probably going to do some cross-country traveling. We’d like to see all of the national parks and learn a little bit about how people live in other parts of the United States.”
Still, leaving will be difficult.
“It’s going to be very tearful,” Spencer said. “It’s going to be the right thing to do, but it’s a wonderful place with wonderful people.”
Place said Spencer will leave with good reviews.
“She’s a terrific leader. She’s done a good job managing the library,” he said. “I can only give her five stars.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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