Bixby starts new chapter with Masha Harris at helm

VERGENNES — The new Bixby Memorial Library executive director has a Dachshund named Lemon and a Toyota Camry with more than 200,000 miles she insists is not a lemon; she enjoys cribbage and embroidery, plays the oboe, has published a couple pieces of short fiction, is working on a novel, and has visited all 251 Vermont towns.
And, yes, she loves books, especially Victorian literature.
“I do indeed,” said Masha Harris, a 33-year-old Vermont native who grew up in Swanton. “I read 94 books in 2017. I use Goodreads, the website, to keep track of what I read.”
And a week or two after taking over from Jane Spencer, Harris said she already appreciates Vergennes and its neighboring towns — she insists she has never been made to feel as welcome.
“I can’t even believe how friendly everyone is,” Harris said. “I went and talked to the guy at the Addison general store, and he was fantastic. A guy helped me at the hardware store, and he was fantastic. What a wonderful place this is.”
Her enthusiasm extends to the Bixby itself, which she knew by reputation when she was in charge of the Enosburg Public Library between 2010 and 2014.
“First of all, it’s a beautiful building,” Harris said in a July 2 interview. “The staff is fantastic … I haven’t met all of our volunteers, but I’ve met some of them, and they’re wonderful.”
Harris said her enthusiasm for the library and the towns it serves is intertwined: She believes libraries should play a major role in their communities, and she wants to help that happen at the Bixby.  
“When you as a resident of one of the five towns think of community, I want you to think of the Bixby,” Harris said.
Dedication to that goal made Harris stand out in what Bixby Board Chairwoman Paula Moore said was a strong field of 15 candidates.
“At this time in the library’s history, as we are wanting to involve (more people) and be open to more people using the library than ever, she had suggestions for getting out in the community, introducing herself and finding out what the library can do to serve different groups,” Moore said.
Harris came to the Bixby after two and a half years as the librarian at the Holocaust Museum Houston, where she supported that Texas institution’s research efforts. But Moore said Harris’s work in Enosburg and her understanding of Vermont were at least as important to the Bixby Board as that prestigious post.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that it’s a librarian that’s coming to be our director,” Moore said. “She understands Vergennes. She is putting down roots already in the community.”
Moore also cited Harris’s “leadership style,” including her dedication to staff development; communication skills; interest in having community members present at library programs; and willingness to listen to what local residents would like to see at their library.
Harris’s family moved to Swanton from Essex when she was six. She took her Missisquoi Valley Union High School degree to Marlboro College, where she earned degrees in translation studies and creative writing.
Her mother was a librarian, first in Alburg’s elementary school and then in Enosburg’s high school. And her mother quietly prepared her book-loving daughter for her career.
“She never told me, but she kind of groomed me for librarianship,” Harris said. “She would bring home a box of books and say, ‘Read this and tell me who to give this to.’ And then she would do it again and again and again.”
After she graduated from Marlboro, Harris was certified to teach English as a second language and traveled around Eastern Europe. Harris was particularly fond of Poland, but landed a job teaching outside of Moscow.
She loved the area and the people, but not the teaching profession, and instead obtained her master’s in library information science from Kent State University. She then successfully applied for the Enosburg job.
“It was a great experience. It was a learning experience. It was a very small library. It just taught me to do everything you could possibly want to know,” Harris said. “I did everything from cataloguing to cleaning the toilet.”
But after about four years she felt she had learned all she could there, and among the jobs she sought was at the Holocaust Museum Houston, which was jointly founded by more than 1,000 Holocaust survivors.
“It was also really rewarding. I got to work really closely with Holocaust survivors and formed really close relationships with them,” Harris said.
But after a time Harris felt she was missing her true calling by remaining behind the lines.
“I became, I don’t want to say interested in social justice so much as interested in social engagement. And just all of a sudden I knew I was in the wrong place in a museum library helping people do academic research,” Harris said. “I saw how a public library is positioned to affect community change and increase community.”
She began to seek a role in a public library just as the Bixby advertised to replace Spencer, who stepped down on June 29.
The ad caught Harris’s attention.
“When I was at Enosburg, you could count the best libraries in the state on one hand, and this library was one of them,” Harris said.
Harris said she will work hard to achieve her goal of “making the library into the place where when you think of community, you think of the library,” something that echoes the board’s 2017 strategic plan.
That document informed both the transformation of the Bixby’s west wing downstairs into a community living room with computer bars, couches, chairs and tables, and future plans for an elevator to the rear of that room that will allow for a meeting room and larger space for children’s programming on the library’s second floor.
“I want people to think about this as the place where people think about going to see people, to do activities, and that’s very much in line with the strategic plan,” she said.  
Harris said this work will not be done at the expense of books — she knows a percentage of the library’s constituents are upset about the recent removal of some of its book collection and the internal reconfiguration.
Harris said all libraries have to “weed” their collections to make room for new books, and all have policies to determine when books that have not been circulated should be removed — in the Bixby’s case books that were recently weeded had not been in circulation for at least three years.
“A lot of the reason we weed is we have such good materials coming in,” Harris said. “We have finite space.”
Nonfiction books also must be up to date, she said.
“If you come into the library and you or a loved one were just diagnosed with cancer I cannot give you a book that was published in 1991,” Harris said. “If your child is doing a school project I can’t give you a book that says Bush is president.”
As for achieving her goals for community outreach, Harris said one tactic will be to get out of the Bixby.
“It’s literally physically going out to those surrounding towns and saying, ‘How can I help you?’ and finding ways to ways to bring them in,” she said.
One way to get residents to come in will be to ask them to present in their areas of expertise.
“I’ve had this idea for a long time that everyone is an expert at something,” Harris said. “I would like to see community teaching community. I would like to make it a series of local experts.”
For example, she rejected a state official’s offer of a speaker from Swanton for a November agriculture awareness event.
“Why would I bring in an agricultural specialist from Swanton when we have an agricultural community here?” she said.
Harris admits to being ambitious, for herself and for the Bixby. And she hopes to stick around.
“I want to make a name for myself in the Vermont library world, and in the national library world. I want to be presenting at state conferences within the next three years, and at national conferences in the next 10,” she said. “And while I do that I want to make a name for the Bixby.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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