SWANTON – When the Swanton Town Library’s front door was unlocked almost a year ago, it was more than just physically freeing. It was also symbolic.
Yes, they removed hives housing thousands of honeybees nesting just outside the front door. But that wasn’t the sting Rebecca Rupp and Michelle Beaulieu were focused on removing.
“There’s no more ‘Shhhh!’” Beaulieu said.
“It’s not your grandma’s library,” said Rupp.
That’s an idea made clear by regular greetings signs placed outside the library. Recent greetings have included “Honk for Team Moby-Dick, Honk for Team Ahab”; “It has been zero days since the librarian bit somebody”; and “If books were snakes, we’d have 17,000 snakes in our library.”
Beaulieu has been the library’s director for almost a year. Rupp has been the chair of the library trustees for just over a year.
Beaulieu comes from an education background; she has a degree in elementary education.
Rupp is an author: she’s written 20 books, three of which have been on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Master List. She also writes a “food and science” blog for National Geographic.
According to them, the only hint of the library’s past, as Rupp puts it, “unfortunate atmosphere,” are two designated “quiet reading areas,” comfortable armchairs surrounded by books. The kids area has been moved upstairs, theoretically solving noise concerns.
“People were worried about noise, our older patrons,” Beaulieu said. “We designated these ‘quiet reading areas’ so they don’t have to worry about the pitter-patter of little feet.”
“More like the elephantine thump of little feet,” Rupp quips.
Beaulieu calls the kids room “ever-developing.” The vast space has new bins for books, donated by the Waterbury Library after renovations.
“I am so proud of those book bins,” Rupp said. “I did a chemistry program in Waterbury, and they announced they were getting rid of these. I threw myself on them.”
Kids activities are another example of the library’s efforts to prove they’re “more accessible,” as Beaulieu put it. “It’s more than just scholarly stuff.”
Regular game nights go beyond “Chutes ‘n’ Ladders” to less orthodox amusements like “Dominion,” “Pandemic,” and Rupp’s personal favorite, “Machine of Death.”
“It’s a stitch,” she said. “The idea is you put your finger in the machine and it takes a tiny blood sample, then it spits out a card with one or two words saying how you’re going to die. They’re very vague and tricky – it might be a word like ‘Fish.’”
“So with ‘Fish,’” Beaulieu picked up, “you don’t know if you’re going to be eaten by a shark, fall of a dock, succumb to food poisoning…”
“And then the idea is to come up with these creative stories about what the word might mean,” Rupp said.
Recently, the library hosted an animation camp, supervised by Caleb Rupp, Rebecca’s son, who works as the library assistant. Kids learned stop-motion animation and claymation techniques. One student came back the next week and got supplies to continue animating from home.
“Almost everyone who took [the course] continued it,” Rupp said.
Next the library is inviting kids to create cardboard pinball machines, an idea created by two Burlington residents featured on WCAX in December. The idea is exactly what it sounds like. The cardboard kits are $50 a kit, but the library is offering them to kids for free, on a first come, first serve basis. Five slots are left.
That kind of financial generosity is possible in part due to a grant from the Association for Library Services for Children. The Swanton Town Library was one of 79 libraries across the country to receive the grant, and the only one in Vermont.
“Landing that was a big deal,” Rupp said. “We ran out and bought pinball machines, stuff for animation camp, steampunk camp, a lot of building supplies…”
“We didn’t have any LEGOs,” Beaulieu said.
Rupp plans to use a portion of the grant to set up a science center in the library.
Between the kids room and a community room – to which the library has just gained access – there is a breastfeeding area.
“We’re breastfeeding-friendly,” Beaulieu said. “We don’t get a lot of breastfeeding moms, and the ones we get tend to stay in [the kids area] anyway. So for the most part, this is the teen hangout.”
Teens are the gap in the library’s patrons. But, Beaulieu said, “The thing I keep getting told at youth services meetings is they’re coming in, just not in huge numbers. But the fact they’re coming in and hanging out is progress.”
Since the library opened its front doors, physically and figuratively, almost a year ago, its overall number of patrons has almost doubled from 750 to approximately 1200.
Additionally, “a lot of patrons who use the library don’t have library cards,” Beaulieu said. “It’s a trend you see across the country. A lot of people come here for events and services, not just books. Probably another 100 people come in here just for programs and classes and activities.
“This is the changing face of libraries. It’s a community center. It’s not just for books.”
“Which is our whole point,” Rupp said. “We really wanted to become a community center, which the Swanton Library hasn’t been for years. All the comments I get now are how welcoming it is, how much we’ve got going on.”
Rupp had just received an email response to the library’s latest newsletter/calendar.
“It said ‘Wow, what an amazing community resource this library is becoming,’” Rupp said.
The library’s community involvement includes a book club at the school apartments, assisted-living housing – which, Rupp said, is “the best book club I’ve ever been in. It is hopping.”
Across from the kids area is an old community room with hardwood floors. Though the library has just gained access to the room, it’s already being used for public meetings, such as a smoking-cessation class and a Prevent Child Abuse VT parenting class. Beaulieu and Rupp emphasize it’s a free space for any non-profit organization.
A week-long steampunk camp will be held in that space, beginning Apr. 18.
Rupp and Beaulieu emphasize this wouldn’t be possible without the town’s support.
Outside of the library budget, the town has also given the library funds to replace flooring, upgrade lighting and buy new computers.
“We have a fabulous book budget here,” Beaulieu said. “We’ve never run into a shortage of money for books here, which is unusual.”
They’ve just received permission from the town to use two garden plots in front of the swan enclosure in the Village Green, where they’ll perform a pollinator workshop with kids on April 16.
“There had been no outreach of any kind” from the library’s previous administrators, according to Rupp. “Previously, organizations who wanted to use this space were told no, it’s not welcome.”
Now, Beaulieu said, they’re booked.
“I have two events for Relay for Life just this weekend,” she said. And although she won’t get paid for coming in and doing those events, Beaulieu said, “It gives the library so much positive promotion that it’s worth it.”
Rupp is excited that the library is beginning to attract potential volunteers. “A passionate friends or volunteer collection would make a huge difference,” Rupp said.
As would a thriving book sale. The library hosts a book sale in July, at the same time as the village car show.
“People coming in for the car show are not necessarily coming in for books,” Beaulieu said. “They just wander in, and they don’t want to carry books around.”
This year, they hope to host the book sale at a different time, as part of a community-wide yard sale, with the help of the arts council.
“We don’t make much on our book sale, but you can make thousands on a book sale if there’s enough publicity,” Rupp said. “If we have enough books and can pull in used book dealers.”
This year’s book sale items are housed in a basement area also used by the Swanton Recreational Gymnastics Program.
“Those are the people who used to get shunted to the basement,” Beaulieu said. “I’ve done everything I can to get them upstairs. When I first started, I would literally come down and invite them upstairs. They would just sit in the hall.”
“The poor dears!” Rupp laments.
“My favorite thing is that people are starting to use [the building],” Beaulieu said. “We’ve worked really hard to get people in here, so that they know we’re here. If taxpayers are paying for it, they should be using it. No one should be excluded from it.”
“When I came on, I heard a lot of negative stuff,” Rupp said. “People saying, ‘I haven’t been in the library in 20 years. It’s not a very friendly place.’
“Now we’re hearing a lot of ‘Wow, are you guys ever doing a lot.’”