Matt Preedom, photo
Change being written at 99-year-old institution
SWANTON — For years the front door of the Swanton Public Library has been locked. The 99-year-old edifice boasts four Corinthian columns one of which was, until earlier this month, filled with tens of thousands of honeybees.
“If we opened that door we would have had a nightmare on our hands,” said Becky Rupp, chair of the library’s board of trustees. “We had to keep the doors closed until we could do something about it, but unfortunately it did make the library seem like an unwelcoming place.”
On May 5 the library fixed the problem. Neal Speer, a contractor and Village trustee, arrived with his crane to remove the columns and local beekeepers Darci and BJ Benoit carried the bees to a new hive. They discovered eight pounds of honey inside the column.
The locked front door has not been the only problem that has deterred people from visiting.
“The front door opens on the green, on the center of town, and that is where we should be facing both physically with the building and with our approach to patrons,” Rupp said.
“The library has had a perception of being unfriendly; one of those libraries where people ‘shhh’ others. Of course there is a quiet space, but we want this building to be a hub of the community. We are trying to reinvent the library and we’ve hired a new director to help us do that,” added Rupp.
The new library director is Michelle Beaulieu, who has worked at the Highgate Public Library for about eight years and recently became that facility’s part-time programming coordinator. She also has worked as a paraeducator and behavior interventionist at the Highgate school.
“In Highgate we have the little library that does big things,” Beaulieu said. “Swanton has a big beautiful library that has so much potential. I’m really excited to help turn this around!”
Beaulieu and Rupp have plans to engage the most underserved potions of the population. One major initiative planned is to relocate the children’s space to the second floor where there is a large, bright room that is not meeting its full potential.
They hope to install a large craft and play area, increase the book collection for children, and put in a “maker’s space” that has science technical crafts that allow kids to safely experiment with electricity, filmmaking, and many other activities.
Rupp, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is the author of two children’s books on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list, feels that opportunities for kids to explore science through projects and programs.
Swanton’s senior citizens are another target audience for Beaulieu who recalls her mother’s winter isolation and hopes to help people connect across generations and with their own, dispersed family.
“We owe our retired people for all the years that supported us with taxes and visiting the library; we’d really like to increase services for them. We have four elderly living spaces within walking distance of the front door. I can’t wait to buy large print books and put in programs to teach them how to Skype or use social media to see their kids and grandkids who don’t live nearby. Winter can be so isolating, especially for the elderly; at the library, we have the resources to help connect them to their community and their family.”
Beaulieu says she hopes to entice high school students to volunteer to work with the elderly to learn the computers. “We’ve tried to bring teenagers into the library in Highgate, and that is something we hope to do in Swanton. Giving teenagers an opportunity to teach the elderly how to use computers can help us build bridges between generations that are often afraid of each other,” she said.
Beaulieu and Rupp hope to install a computer lab and purchase tablets for library patrons.
Rupp said that they expect to have the columns back in time for the 100th anniversary celebration. The doors will be open throughout the summer and they plan to have a table outside for July’s car show.
“We are so excited to have the doors open! hopefully, it will entice people to come in and see what we have to offer!” Rupp said.
Beaulieu summed up the new approach: “The ‘shh’ days are over. We’ll have a quiet reading room, but we want the library to be the heart of the community, and you can’t have that if people feel uncomfortable”