Bixby youth librarian leaves with happy memories

BIXBY YOUTH SERVICES Librarian Rachel Plant is retiring after almost 20 years.

There’s going to be a kid from this library who writes a book about this amazing, crazily energetic children’s librarian. And it’s going to be clear to all of us it’s going to be Rachel.
— Maddy Willwerth

VERGENNES — Among many other things, Bixby Library youth services librarian Rachel Plant loves hats. 
Lego hats. Santa hats. Her lobster and Dr. Seuss “Cat in the Hat” hats.
The Dr. Seuss hat, with its red and white stripes piling high, is what Plant plans to wear during Saturday’s Clang-and-Bang parade in Vergennes.
Plant will sit near a South Maple Street sidewalk and wave farewell to the city as it passes by: Her last official day of work at the Bixby after almost 20 years is Friday, May 29.
No doubt many who have enjoyed her weekly story hours and her love of children and children’s literature will be waving back and saying thank you.
Last week Plant acknowledged she does love hats, which sometimes she wears during her weekly children’s story hours at the Bixby — including the lobster hat for tales of the sea. 
“Hats are a fun extension of whatever extravaganza is going on,” Plant said. “I’ve been known to wear some pretty silly things on my head.”
Hats are just one expression of Plant’s enthusiasm during her combined 27 years at Bristol’s Lawrence Library, the New Haven Community Library in her hometown of the past 35 years, and the Bixby, including nine as its director.
Bixby Board Chairwoman Paula Moore explained. 
“Anyone who has ever seen Rachel interacting with children has witnessed a woman working magic,” Moore said. 
“She captivated children with her storytelling. Rachel also worked with teen volunteers, giving them a first work experience and the ability to contribute to the Bixby. She respected the teen volunteers and helped them understand that they were valuable and important to the library. What a gift she gave to everyone.”
Bixby Assistant Director Maddy Willwerth said her own children, ages 3 and 5, are among the many who think of Plant as more than someone they see at the Bixby. 
Willwerth recalled explaining mortality and distance from loved ones to her older daughter. Hearts are connected with an unbreakable line, Willwerth told them, and hearts hurt the more loved ones are absent because the line is stretched, and conversely better with nearness.
That discussion quickly included Plant.
“She said, and Rachel isn’t part of our family, ‘Is Rachel’s heart tied to my heart?’” Willwerth said, concluding, “I think that Rachel isn’t just our librarian. She’s part of all our families.”

Plant did not plan to become a librarian. She grew up on a lot carved out her grandparents’ Shelburne farm and lived what would now be described as a free-range childhood, roaming farm fields and yards and woods.
When Plant was not playing outside, she was often reading or listening to her French-Canadian father read. 
“My dad read a lot to me,” Plant said. “Sometimes he would read in French to me, and sometimes he would read in English to me.”
As soon as she could, Plant read on her own. 
“My dad had lots of book he saved from his childhood,” Plant said, adding she often spent her allowance on 25-cent Golden Books.
Plant attended the University of Vermont, starting majoring in forestry for two years, foreseeing a career back on the family farm, but switched to major in English and art.
She had taken English courses “all along the way, because I love to write.” That interest led her to UVM’s library and to helping out its librarians and to meeting other lovers of books and libraries.
“I liked it because it could be as private as you wanted, or as intimate as you wanted. It was what you wanted to make of that experience. Then I realized they were all over the world. And if you could do this here you could go anywhere,” Plant said.
She enjoyed the library as a place where ideas could be freely exchanged on an equal footing. 
“You could go here and be with a whole bunch of different people,” Plant said. “There were people you chose to invite. And then there’s what my dad used to say: ‘There’s no strangers. There are only friends you haven’t met yet.’”
She and her husband, Richard Shappy, moved to Maine for several years, but when their two children came of school age they returned for Vermont’s better schools. They found the New Haven home in which they still live, and when their children were a little older Plant began working at the Lawrence Library.

After a couple years there and seven at New Haven’s library, Plant trained at the Bixby for two years under late librarian Lois Noonan. After a brief break, Plant took over from Noonan as Bixby director, but after a while was happy to step down and become the youth services librarian. 
“I was tired of the administrative stuff and said, ‘This is not the best use of me here,’” Plant said. “I’m more of a people person.”
Possibly one reason Plant has done well in the role is a forever-young attitude. For example, she artfully dodged questions about her age, even when asked about her UVM graduation date — “Many moons ago, yes it was.”
She explained how she answers the question to her younger patrons.
“I tell the kids I’m six and I’m never growing up. And they look at me, and some of them will shake their head, like no you’re not. And some of them look at me and go, ‘You’re just as old as me,’” Plant said. “I am six pretty much.”
Willwerth helped explain why she gets along with both younger children and teen volunteers.
“She’s so aware of how to speak to children in a way you’re not talking down to them, you’re including them and you’re listening to them,” Willwerth said. “She does that naturally.”

Sadly, the COVID-19 epidemic has taken away much of what Plant considers the best part of her job. 
“I miss being out doing programs in person. Because that’s when the aha moments happen, when you break the ice with the shyer child or the child with special needs, and they all of a sudden edge a little bit closer to you in that familiar way, and you just kind of hug yourself secretly in your head,” she said.
She believes the library can right now best be served by someone else in her role.
“They need someone who can do all that virtual programming, and can do it with zeal and vigor and imagination,” Plant said.
Moore said Plant will help plan for the library’s future expansion, which will include an upgraded children’s area. Plant will also create a “Rachel’s Corner” for book recommendations, and come back and work with her replacement on story hours, possibly expanding that program.
Plant said she will miss working with her teen volunteers, but will be happy to help out in those other ways.
“Count me in on story time,” she said. “There’s fairy dust in there that just floats around with the dust motes.”
Willwerth believes neither she, Moore nor Plant will have the last word on the departing youth services librarian.
“There’s going to be a kid from this library who writes a book about this amazing, crazily energetic children’s librarian,” she said. “And it’s going to be clear to all of us it’s going to be Rachel.”

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