Libraries on the Road: Tunbridge Vermont

In the middle of May my boss asks me if I’d like to take on a project in Vermont for a few weeks. I jump at the chance. The next day I grab a rental car, toss my bike and suitcase in the back and 8 hours later I am in Vermont.

The great thing for me about this job is that I grew up in this state. I get to see lots of old friends and visit some of my favourite places – and find some new ones as well.

Now when I travel I make a point of visiting libraries and even travelling to my home state I am excited to do it again. For most of my childhood, I relied on the library in my school for books. Today, though, I’m not going back to my old school. I’m going to go to the next town over, Tunbridge where a friend of mine is able to introduce me to the librarian.

There’s no subway or even a bus to get to this library and so my friend and I caravan over after breakfast. Tunbridge is a small town of just over 1,300 people so there’s no traffic and no parking worries. Pull to the side of the road across from the library and you have your parking space.

Tunbridge is like many small Vermont towns. You know you’re approaching it because the speed limit reduces, and then comes the village proper. Buildings get closer together, you might see a store, post office, maybe a pizza and sub place and a few houses. Then the houses thin out and the speed limit goes back up to maximum again. Before that happens we reach the library.

I walk in the door and I’m struck immediately by the smell. There is some combination of wood and perhaps the particular species of microbial flora that inhabit the books that immediately says “Vermont Library” to me. Though I have never been to this library before it smells just like many of the other libraries in the region – and not at all like ones outside the area. I’m instantly taken back 40 years in time and feel so comfortable here.

The weather is finally warm outside and so the only people at the library other than us are several people setting up for a book sale and library fundraiser that, along with a plant sale will be happening in a couple of days. I explore the library – and thanks to the fact that my friend knows the director and librarian, I’m able to share lots of photos with you. This library may be small but it’s beautiful and well-loved. The fact that supporters are there on a long holiday weekend to help the library raise money underscores that fact.

As I’m headed to the front desk something catches my eye:

A few more nostalgic items catch my eye.

At the front desk today is the librarian, Jean Wolfe.

I tell her how glad I am to see the cards still in the books. When I lived in small towns I always loved them because when I would go to check out a book, I could look to see who checked it out before me. Quite often someone I know had read it and I knew I would have an instant book club to discuss it with.

Jean tells me that they do actually have a computerized card catalog but they still use the handwritten cards as well because people there also like them for the same reasons I do. It might be difficult for a large city library to maintain two parallel systems, but with less than 10,000 volumes and about 8,000 items circulating per year it is manageable and I’m really glad to see it.

In this series I often talk a lot about the great programs on offer in the Toronto library. It’s to be expected when you serve an enormous city and have a budget of over $140 million USD. I am curious about how a small town library serves its users – in this case only 1,284 residents. I ask what types of programs they do.

Just recently they had held a “Vernal Pool” workshop with a visit to an actual vernal pool – a pond that only comes around in the spring when snow melt and rain bring them about for a few weeks. Kids made their own vernal pool dioramas as well.

There are book clubs and this past winter when the tendency is to stay indoors and hibernate there was a series of six events with everything from a local artist talking about his work to a local baker to craft brewers and even a discussion of town meetings as they relate to democracy.

My friend tells me about a cartooning program that also happens there that gives many kids a place to be and a creative outlet where they might not otherwise have one.

This is rounded out by chess clubs and even movie nights.

As big cities look toward becoming more of a “library of things” sharing everything from Internet hotspots to musical instruments, even this small library is looking in that direction. They recently discussed the possibility of offering snowshoes for patrons to borrow – a great thing in a part of the world that gets a hard, snowy winter.

My friend takes me to the basement to show me the used book sale area. This space is bigger than any of the Friends of the Toronto Library bookstores. Prices are incredibly reasonable with nothing more than $3 and most things much less. The selection is eclectic and I pick up two coffee table books from the 1940’s for Daegan about photography for $3 each. But not all the books are old or eclectic. There is no shortage of nearly new and popular titles. It makes me happy to see this – clearly this library is shown lots of love in the form of donations and those book donations turn in to operating funding.

Before I leave, Jean shows me a painting by a local artist.

At first glance, looking at the people and activity I think it is an old painting – perhaps of an event that took place in the 1800’s. In it, an old fashioned covered bridge is being moved in to place.

As it turns out, this happened in the past 20 years. The bridge was destroyed by an ice jam. Residents loved it so much that according to the local paper:

when ice pulled one of the five covered spans in Tunbridge into the river, residents labored desperately to pull it to shore and save it. When they’d salvaged all they could, they set the rest afire to keep the wreckage from breaking up and taking out another covered bridge downstream.

People “were actually weeping when the bridge was moving and had to be destroyed,” says Euclid Farnham, the town historian. So a year later, the town rebuilt it.

Valley News – October 29, 2011 “Vermont’s Love for Old Bridges Rekindled by Hurricane Irene

Residents lobbied to replace it – not with a modern concrete span but another traditional bridge. This painting commemorates the return of the bridge back to where it belonged – to me the sign of people who love their neighbours and community.

And that’s the overwhelming idea I leave the library with. While I have no doubt that every branch of Toronto’s library is as much loved and needed as this library, seeing this small library in its small community without all of the other distractions that a city brings with it makes it really clear to see just how much they’re valued and how much they contribute.

11 thoughts on “Libraries on the Road: Tunbridge Vermont

  1. It warmed my heart to see those cards in books. I also loved seeing how long it had been since a book had been read. The Vermont library reminded me of the Pike library I recently wrote about.

  2. Todd – I loved this blog. It actually set me thinking about the library inside our condominium and that I have contributed about 200 books to it but never visited it. And guess what – our condominium has about 950+ flats/homes and on average even if 2 people live in each home the population in just our condominium is more than Turnbridge town’s population. Fascinating, isn’t it ?

    1. That really boggles the mind. I hadn’t thought of it that way before – but our two buildings have just about the same number of apartments. Even though I grew up one town over from Tunbridge, I’ve been away so long that it seems strange and unimaginable now to have that few people around.

      Next time I visit we can visit the library in your condominium together 🙂

    1. Agreed. I loved them. I think my son likes them – but he is a combination of the two of us: my appreciation for technology and Sage’s appreciation for old fashioned analog methods.

  3. Thank you, Todd for this wonderful in-depth tour of Tunbridge. I also visit libraries whenever I’m in a new town or state. I just reviewed Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. Have you read it? Also, I posted a photo of the Johnson VT library which I discovered when I was a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. I have a particular affinity for tiny and historical libraries.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I haven’t seen the library in Johnson – I’ll have to go looking for it now. As much as the big libraries have lots to offer, the small ones often have so much character.

      That book is definitely on my “to-read” list. It looks amazing!

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