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Sad About The Athenaeum - Susan DeWitt Wilder

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Sad about the Athenaeum

To the Editor:

I grew up in East St. Johnsbury, always grateful for the treasure that is the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum. I am saddened to learn of its financial difficulties.

I have read the articles, the letters to the editor, and visited the websites. The trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the black and to not to spend endowment principal. They hold the Athenaeum in trust for the community, and they deserve credit for making difficult choices. However, their staff restructuring is only one step in ensuring the Athenaeum's survival.

The Athenaeum is more than a library. Its art collection is a cultural resource and the trustees are acknowledging its national significance by hiring a curator. What are the other objectives that will bring the Athenaeum to its goal of financial sustainability? Increasing staff hours devoted to fundraising and making rare books available on the internet won't be enough. The Athenaeum needs a broader base of funding.

It was Anne Swainbank Brooks' letter to the editor about her service on the Athenaeum board which moved me to write. I was stunned to learn that town support during her board tenure amounted to less than 25% of the Athenaeum's operating budget. According to Bill Marshall's op-ed in the Caledonian-Record, the Town of St. Johnsbury now provides only 17.3% of that budget.

No wonder the Athenaeum is struggling. Its fundraising challenge is enormous.

I am a fundraiser and a former trustee of my library here in Scarborough, Maine, a town of 19,000. The Scarborough Library is respected statewide, and an early adopter of all that information technology makes possible for library users. During this long recession, residents have turned to the Library in even larger numbers for internet access, research, entertainment, education, and community connection. I consider it to be the heart of our town.

Scarborough taxpayers provide 91% of the cost of operating our library. The budget last year was $887,929, with $807,629 coming from the town. An active fundraising campaign by both the Library itself and the Friends of the Library raised the additional $80,300.

The outrage toward the trustees should be directed elsewhere. The voters of St. Johnsbury should insist their taxes support the operation of the Athenaeum to a much greater extent. The educational and economic value of the Athenaeum to St. Johnsbury is immeasurable and worthy of the investment.

My contribution to the Athenaeum is in the mail, along with the hope that all who "hugged" the library are members of the Friends of the Athenaeum. However, our contributions alone will not solve the financial challenges. It's budget talk time. I urge St. Johnsbury residents to use your energy to make your case to the Board of Selectmen, and to make it in such numbers that it can't be ignored.


Susan DeWitt Wilder, CFRE

Scarborough, Maine


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