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Faith in Vermont: Change and the Library

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Posted on September 26, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



“Is that a new cash register?” my eight-year-old daughter asked the woman behind the counter at Otter Creek Bakery last week.

I do take my daughters to the bakery on a semi-regular basis because “they” need treats -- but I don’t take them so often that I’d expect them to notice a different cash register.

The woman behind the counter seemed as surprised as I was when she answered, “Why, yes….Yes, it is!”

My daughter threw her hands in the air and turned to me. “See! Everything in town is changing and getting more modern!”

Change is hard for kids, who tend to crave routine and predictability. But my daughter was right: By any measure, the past year has brought a dizzying array of changes to Middlebury, especially from a kid’s eye view.

Whirlie’s World closed, as did 51 Main and the Sparkling Champagne Bar (not a kids’ hangout, but they noticed anyway.) Sama’s Market became Schafer’s Market. Aurora School closed, then reopened as the Aurora Learning Center. The old town gym – housed for years along with the town offices in the crumbling remains of the former high school after a fire destroyed its upper floor – was razed and transformed into a green space, while a brand new rec center and new town offices were constructed elsewhere. The Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op is wrapping up a major expansion project, right down the street from where the defunct Sweet Marie’s restaurant became Coriander. The temporary bridges of the rail improvement project have altered traffic patterns in downtown Middlebury. Middlebury Mountaineer – where we rent our cross-country skis – moved into the space formerly occupied by Clementine, while Benj and Lesley Deppman opened a law practice in the old Mountaineer storefront. The Champlain Farms gas station on Court Street got a new roof. And just when we’d gotten used to the Ben Franklin’s toy section being downstairs, they moved it back upstairs again.

Now the Otter Creek Bakery has a brand new cash register! Will it ever stop?

Of course, just because we adults have experienced countless changes over our lifetimes doesn’t mean that we like it any more than our kids.

I myself am no fan of bigger, better, or more modern. We don’t own a T.V. We raise chickens and ducks, and plant fruits and vegetables, in part so that we will be less dependent on the modern food industry. I’m increasingly convinced that a certain online retailer is an evil empire, so I will go to some effort to shop locally and secondhand if possible (or at least buy used books online.) 

In fact, my husband and I are such throwbacks that we don’t own smartphones; nor – to the great distress of our friends – do we ever plan to. (I panic whenever somebody text messages me: If there’s any sort of graphic attached, I won’t get it, and if a reply is required, I have to spend the next 10 minutes pecking out my words on microscopic keys, during which time my daughters will always, always be screaming at me to help them with some “crisis” like putting shoes on their dolls. And this is a very recent improvementover my last phone, which didn’t even have a miniscule keyboard, necessitating me to press each key three times to get the letter I needed. I tell you, I miss that old phone!)

At night, we disconnect our internet at 9:30, sit on our couch, and read books. Paper books.

You see whom you’re dealing with here? Like my daughter, there’s a part of me that would prefer Middlebury to remain exactly as it was when I first fell in love with it seven years ago. I still idealize that time, when Vermont seemed to be a land of rolling hills, sparkling lakes, grass-fed cows, and free-range children. Vermont is all those things, but it’s also a land of economic struggle, a gasping dairy industry, an opiate crisis, and an aging, declining population. (As a wise friend once cautioned, “Sometimes it rains here, too!”)

To insist on seeing Vermont as I did when we first arrived would be akin to insisting that my husband stay the same as on our wedding day, or that my children remain unchanged from the day of their birth: Resisting change may save us some messy struggles, but it also denies us the opportunity to have the fullest relationships with those we love. Being a productive citizen of Vermont – and of Middlebury – requires that I combine my original love of this place with an awareness of its darkest issues and deepest needs.

As one step in that direction, this year I became the most recently elected member of the Ilsley Public Library Board of Trustees.

This is a critical time for Middlebury’s public library, which is consistently ranked among the top public libraries in Vermont for its overall number of visits and program attendance: We are in the midst of a search for a new Library Director, and we’re about to begin a feasibility study on raising funds for a major renovation of the library building.

The proposed library renovation, by Gossens-Bachman Architects, has elicited some gasps from the Middlebury community. Many of these gasps are in the same vein as my daughter’s: People who are wary of change, and who worry that Middlebury has already endured enough changes of late. There are also gasps at the project’s price tag, which currently stands at roughly $9 million.

I’ve explained my own tendency to resist change and modernization (I’ve even written previously about how saddened I was when the library installed self-checkout terminals!) I’m also a Middlebury taxpayer raising four young children on one income. I understand all of those gasps.

But a week ago, I attended a public meeting about the library renovation project. Architect Tom Bachman walked us through the proposed changes, followed by a positive and respectful question-and-answer session.

While I will happily discuss the clear need for renovations to the current Ilsley building, and how the proposed design meets those needs beautifully – just ask if you see me around town – here is what I want to say right now:

Let’s be open to this change.

The current goal is to break ground on the project in 2023 or 2024, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the original 1923 building (which will remain central and intact as part of any renovation, those who eschew change will be happy to know.) That’s more than five years of discussion and planning, which should give us all plenty of time to adjust to the idea.

But can we at least agree that Middlebury deserves a library with adequate ventilation, a more accessible entrance, and a heating/cooling system and elevator that aren’t on their last legs? Do our citizens merit a meeting room without a ridiculously low ceiling and a carpet that’s flooded with sewage several times? Should our children be lifted out of a cramped, moldy basement? Must all library visitors use unsupervised, street-accessible bathrooms that pose public health and security risks?

There will be a price tag. And though the Library Board’s goal is to raise as much money as possible through private donations, part of this price tag would fall on the town.

Is a library that more adequately serves the needs of our town worth the cost? I would suggest that it is; that a library better equipped to offer books, educational programs, computer access, meeting space, and more, to people of all ages and economic status – all free of charge – would be a cornerstone of a healthy community.

I acknowledge that change is hard, especially when change comes at a cost: For the first time, I’m typing this column while wearing reading glasses that my eye doctor instructed me to wear over my contact lenses so that my eyes would stop twitching from strain. I don’t like this change, and I had to pay for these reading glasses -- but it sure is worth it.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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