VERGENNES — As the Bixby Memorial Free Library prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday in October, the library’s director and board are also taking steps to keep the Vergennes institution relevant for its second century.
In the next few months, the Bixby will automate its card catalog, receive computer hardware and software as part of the e-Vermont grant the library helped Vergennes win, run computer literacy workshops, and on Town Meeting Day survey residents of the five communities it serves.
Recently, the Bixby has started offering about 500 free online courses, plus many digital books that can be downloaded to e-readers and computers.
Library Director Jane Spencer, now in her sixth month on the job, also has begun what will probably be a multi-year task of deciding how to catalog and display the library’s extensive collections of artifacts — some of which one expert called of Smithsonian quality — and historical materials.
Spencer said some of the challenges the Bixby faces, as technology advances at warp speed, are not unique to the Vergennes library, while others — like caring for a century-old building and handling its collections — are particular to the Main Street fixture.
“This library has not only the challenge of providing books and trying to figure out how to stay current with electronic kinds of things,” she said, “but also taking care of this building, and the collections in this building, which are fantastic.”
Another challenge will be planning the celebration of the Bixby’s centennial. As October approaches, the Friends of the Bixby Library will use its monthly Third Thursday lecture series to look back over the years, Spencer said.
“We’ve taken on the theme of celebrating the decades,” she said. “Each month we expect our Third Thursday program will celebrate a different decade.”
Certainly, a major bash is in the works for October. Spencer said Bixby board chairwoman Kitty Oxholm would like to add a twist to the festivities — recreating the opening ceremony that is documented in a Bixby archives photo (see photo on this page).
The e-Vermont grant will help with the technological challenges as the Bixby looks past its birthday — the Bixby served as the lead applicant for the grant.
The city and the Vergennes Partnership, the nonprofit that oversees the health of downtown Vergennes, are also administrating the broad-based grant. Statewide grant partners include the Vermont Council on Rural Development, the Vermont Department of Libraries, Digital Wish, the Vermont Small Business Development Center, and Vermont state colleges.
Among other things, the grant has already given laptops to Addison Central School students. It will eventually provide broadband Wi-Fi for downtown Vergennes, a Front Porch Forum online bulletin board for residents to communicate about civic issues, and funds for the Bixby to hold workshops to help local residents learn to use computers and social media tools like Skype and Twitter.
The grant will also soon give the Bixby two laptops, at least one iPad, three e-readers (two Nooks and a Kindle), and several small video recorders known as flip cameras.
Coming with the equipment will be needed software, plus subscriptions to online periodicals like The New York Times and The Economist.
Spencer said the Bixby will use the grant to gently lead some local residents into the digital era. For instance, Bixby officials will discontinue its hard-copy subscription to The Economist and put it online on the new iPad.
“We decided to continue that subscription as an online subscription so that people would be pushed a little bit to use the iPad,” Spencer said. “I think there will be a lot of people in the area who have never used a Nook, who have never downloaded a book, who have never read a newspaper on an iPad, who have never had an opportunity to touch one, and that’s all part of it.”
The first use for the flip cameras — which will eventually be part of the library’s lending inventory — will tie in with the Bixby’s history and its service to Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham, as well as Vergennes.
Spencer said Bixby officials hope students can use the cameras to interview residents about local history, and then not only keep the end results at the library, but also offer them back to the towns.
“There may be a historical bent to those interviews because of our 100th year. And those interviews will be posted on our website. And they’ll be emailed to the different towns so the towns can post them on their websites,” she said.
Bixby officials have been planning to automate the card catalog for a few years, but now there is a date attached.
“We’re going live April 9,” Spencer said.
At first, library patrons will have to use the onsite computers to access the catalog, but eventually the set-up will allow remote access. For example, Spencer said someone with a handheld device could log on, see if a book was available and ask it to be held for pick-up.
Technology also figures in two important recent additions to the Bixby. About six months ago, the Bixby signed onto a Vermont Department of Libraries program that offers about 500 online courses that cover a wide range of topics.
“It’s everything from algebra to zoology. Some are how-to courses. Some are how to do taxes,” Spencer said.
Library cardholders can log onto any computer and access any of the courses, she said.
Also, since December the Bixby has worked with Green Mountain Library Consortium to offer e-books and audio books that can be downloaded onto computers, phones and e-readers. Among those who have taken advantage of this service is Spencer’s husband, John.
“I’ve seen him come to pick me up here, and he’s got the computer on his lap listening,” she said.
In recent years, the Bixby has worked to shore up its finances. In the 1990s, as the library’s endowment dwindled, its officials realized contributions from the towns it serves were among the lowest in the state, and successfully petitioned residents for increases.
In recent years, the Bixby has moved to become part of towns’ annual budgets rather than a charitable line items voted on by residents.
Spencer said towns have been generous, and a recent major estate bequest was more than welcome.
“We do have wonderful support from our five towns right now,” she said.
But the Bixby is still not funded like a municipal library. Maintaining and heating a 100-year-old building is costly, income from an endowment drops when interest rates are low and investments do not perform well, and the Bixby’s annual fundraising campaigns have struggled.
“There are huge, huge challenges,” Spencer said. “We’re just wrapping up our annual appeal right now, which did not come through.”
Donors of $100 or more receive a recently completed DVD that compiles interviews with local residents about their history with and feelings about the library.
Library officials believe, however, that the long-range solution to the Bixby’s financial situation is to make the library more relevant in local residents’ lives.
Already, as well as the technology, the library has added free tax preparation help from the local RSVP branch and free yoga classes from the city’s StudioM Yoga.
Spencer said Bixby officials also want to know what other services and offerings residents would like and even what hours they would like to see the Bixby open.
That’s where the Town Meeting Day surveys come in.
“We can find out a little more about what’s keeping people from participating in the life of the Bixby, and what kinds of things they’d like to see so maybe we could work on expanding those,” Spencer said.
The Bixby will also use its centennial milestone to raise its profile.
“We’re really looking to take care of things,” Spencer said. “We’re looking to take care of this building, take care of the community, figure out what needs to be done, and move forward.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.