It’s not often an opportunity comes along that would change the landscape for entire communities and improve the lives of its residents by enhancing their ability to learn, communicate, connect, and fulfill dreams. In the infrastructure package before Congress you’ll find it. The Build America’s Libraries Act, would dedicate $5 billion to the modernization and construction of libraries across the country, with an estimated $18 million allocated for Vermont.
As President Obama said, “Literacy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy.” Libraries in rural communities enrich their visitors by providing life-long learning and literacy for all.
The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, a library and art gallery celebrating its 150th anniversary, is a lifeline for people who can’t afford a computer, printer, or high speed internet connection.
Broadband access and hardware are critical, and virtual schooling the last eighteen months showed how little there is in our beloved Vermont. Throughout the pandemic, the Athenaeum was open more than any other cultural institution in the region. In fact, libraries are often the only institutions to remain open during times of crisis. Service and stewardship to our communities are core to our profession.
But limited by a small children’s room, and without a proper meeting space the Athenaeum needs to expand. The Build America’s Libraries Act could potentially allow the library to purchase or lease space in the neighboring building to create a larger children’s room with more programming space, and an innovative teen maker space. We could also create an accessible public meeting room with video and sound equipment, projection screen, computers for training, adaptive technology, and a place for private video conferencing. All spaces would be adaptable for future needs.
The Alice M. Ward Memorial Library, in Canaan, is a former 1846 stagecoach inn and one of only three public libraries in Essex County. The county is geographically isolated with 6,000 people over 675 square miles, and a population density of about nine people per mile, exponentially lower than any other county in Vermont. With no hospitals or pharmacies, the closure of mills, lack of good paying jobs with benefits, and an aging tax base, this rural area faces challenges to fund and maintain building infrastructure.
Alice M. Ward Memorial Library is a busy, vibrant hub with free books and materials, as well as digital literacy education, humanities programs surrounding arts and history themes including a Historical Society, teen programs, Canaan’s Playgroup, painting nights, book club, and more. It will loan you snowshoes and a map to the Canaan Community Forest trails.
The library connects the community as a business center. Fast, reliable WiFi is available 24/7, inside and outside to adjacent parks and recreation areas. In March and April 2020, when people couldn’t reach state agencies offering pandemic assistance, the library was faxing successfully to submit residents’ applications for unemployment, social security, housing, courts, fuel assistance, and DMV needs. Even fishing licenses are frequently coming from the printer. Many Essex County towns are the most unserved areas of the state for broadband and cell reception service. The library bridges this gap and is a conduit to remote learning, career options, continuing education, telemedicine, and transformative connections for all ages and stages of residents’ lives. A challenge the building has is size. More space as a community center would be a vital upgrade to expand and improve existing services.
Alice M. Ward Library has wonderful support of townspeople and grant funding to keep the iconic building sound and beautiful. Crucial connections are formed in this shared community space in many ways. Investing in the infrastructure of libraries is a valuable way to invest in the future locally, one community at a time.
Vermont has the most libraries per capita of any state, but most of our 185 libraries were built well over 60 years ago by architects who could never have imagined today’s needs. Many are in repurposed spaces that do not meet safety, space, and structural requirements. Some like ours are in historic buildings that are costly to maintain and even pricier to renovate.
Co-introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Build America’s Libraries Act would reverse decades of federal underinvestment by addressing facility infrastructure, accessibility barriers, broadband capacity, natural disasters, pandemics, and environmental hazards. It would also prepare libraries for climate change, by prioritizing sustainable and resilient design to withstand flooding, extreme heat, severe storms, and extended power outages.
For decades, our libraries have helped Vermonters meet their literacy and information needs. While needs have changed over the years, many library buildings haven’t kept up. Nonetheless, we see every day how libraries are a lifeline for folks from all walks of life. The Build America’s Libraries Act will help us keep that promise, and strengthen it, for generations to come.
Bob Joly is the director of the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum and Sharon Ellingwood White is the director of the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library.