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Chatfield closing chapter in career as literacy champion

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Let’s get the puns out of the way early.

Ilsley Public Library Youth Services Librarian Carol Chatfield has decided to close a long chapter in her professional life. She is ready to turn the page on a lengthy career. Her performance speaks volumes about what a learned, compassionate person can do to instill good reading habits in children.

There.

Now we can focus on Chatfield’s career, which has been far from a punch line. It has been 37 fruitful years of delivering the gift of literacy to thousands of children throughout Addison and Rutland counties.

But all good things must come to an end, and Chatfield has decided to retire from her duties as a librarian at the end of this month.

“I feel like I want to do something different,” Chatfield said on Thursday, as children of all ages cavorted through the rows of books in the Ilsley Library’s youth section.

“Change is not necessarily bad; it can be revitalizing,” she said.

Chatfield learned that first-hand — back in 1970, when she decided she had had her fill of her first career: Teaching. She’d been working as a French instructor at Waterbury Elementary School, but wasn’t happy about having only 15-minute sessions with her groups of students. Moreover, the children she was teaching had to take beginners’ French classes all over again when they began middle school.

“The idea of (teaching French) and then having to say, ‘I’m sorry, it doesn’t count, you have to go back to square one when you go to middle school’ didn’t appeal to me,” Chatfield said.

So, after one year as a teacher, Chatfield had come to a professional crossroads. She knew she wanted to continue working with children, but women of that era, it seemed, became either teachers or nurses — vocations in which she had no substantial interest.

Chatfield’s mom would ultimately provide her with some key guidance. She reminded Carol about how she had, as a young girl, designed her own cards to put in books she had loaned out to neighborhood friends.

Recalling how she had played “librarian,” Chatfield thought she’d try being a real one.

With that, she went off to Boston to earn her master’s degree in library science at Simmons College. She immediately parlayed that degree into a position as “children’s librarian” at the Rutland Free Library in June of 1971. There, she worked for 23 successful years, presiding over the library’s youth collection and establishing new literacy programs — such as popular “story hours.”

Chatfield sought a change of pace in 1994 when she became a consultant with Vermont’s regional library in Rutland. Her tasks included advising municipal libraries — including Middlebury’s Ilsley Library — on how to develop new programs and sustain existing ones.

Chatfield’s tenure with the regional library would be short, however. She began looking for a new job when state officials began sizing up the regional library system for cuts.

Fortunately, she learned of the vacant youth services librarian post at the Ilsley. She applied and was offered the job in April 1996.

Her duties have included maintaining, promoting and compiling the library’s youth collection; creating and implementing literacy programs; and visiting local day care centers and schools in the Middlebury area to promote Ilsley’s amenities while leading talks/storytelling sessions.

She has run a very successful summer program, offering dozens of events tailored to children, through high school.

“Some of the programs are purely for entertainment,” Chatfield said. “The whole point is to get them into the library. We want them to remember the library is a fun place to be.”

And when they can’t be in the library, Chatfield still wants them reading — particularly at an early age. With that in mind, a few years ago she brought to the Ilsley the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program that provides a free book to each member (birth until the age of 5) each month. The program has since gone countywide, with a board of directors and an ambitious fund-raising effort. The Imagination Library currently serves 867 county children, according to Chatfield.

She will carry a boatload of memories of the children she has helped throughout the years.

“You can easily maintain a friendship with a child over a book,” Chatfield said.

The children have shown their appreciation for Chatfield’s services in many touching ways.

“Sometimes, they come in and give you dandelions they’ve picked from the front lawn, or they’ll give you a hug,” Chatfield said, with a smile.

And the teens have also shown their thanks by bringing Chatfield into their own world of reading.

“They’ll give you a list of books to read, to keep you ‘in the loop,’” Chatfield said.

“And, frankly, I think a lot of the adult literature is not as good as some of the children’s literature.”

She noted it’s not uncommon to see adults sifting through the youth collection, looking for various titles.

CHANGING TIMES

Some of those titles — such as the wildly successful “Harry Potter” series — owe some of their popularity to movies, memorabilia, television and advertising, Chatfield noted. So even though those media — along with computers and video games — are competing with reading for people’s time, they are at least prompting students to pick up some books.

Computers have become a good ally for librarians, who once had to painstakingly sift through catalogue files. Now a few strokes of a keyboard can reveal a book’s location with relatively few clues.

“Computers make it a lot easier to find that elusive book ‘with the red cover and the dog on the front,’” Chatfield said of the sometimes-limited clues librarians have to work with when embarking on a search.

And, unlike a few decades ago, Internet browsing is a common amenity at libraries, Chatfield noted.

“(Computers) are a mixed blessing,” Chatfield said of computers.

Still, Chatfield was pleased to report that library attendance among kids has stayed pretty constant throughout the years — in spite of many competing interests. That attendance can now be seen throughout the day, as opposed to the after-school rush she had seen in previous years.

“We didn’t have home-schoolers when I first started,” Chatfield explained. “And on days when there is no school, we draw heavily.”

Chatfield has been a big part of drawing children into Middlebury’s book hub, but she’s ready to take a break. She plans to take it easy for a while once she leaves the library, them immerse herself into some volunteer opportunities.

“I feel like I want to do something different,” Chatfield said. “It’s time for a new adventure.”

The community will be able to bid farewell to Chatfield during a special open house at the Ilsley Library from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 31.

She will be missed, according to Ilsley Library Director David Clark.

“Carol has done so much to define the quality of library services that people know are supported here and encouraged,” Clark said. “Carol has made parents and children welcome here.”

Library officials are paring down a list of 45 applicants for Chatfield’s job. A successor will be picked to start on Feb. 1.

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