Special note to the reader: In 1989, the citizens of Woodstock, with great forethought to the future, elected to ask New York State to make our library a Special District Public Library, controlled by voting taxpayers. Annual elections determine whether there is a budget increase but we are guaranteed a certain level of funding each year. Please carefully consider the consequences before you support the referendum to reverse the governance of the library.
First let me start by saying, I’m a lover not a fighter.
And until now, I’ve not been particularly political. Sure. I vote. I march. I contribute. But it was not until I joined the library board that I realized what (a dirty business) politics can be.
When I told neighbors and friends I was joining the library board last year, I was surprised to receive either an excessive amount of eye-rolling or a consoling pat on the back. “Oh, dear… he library? Good luck with that!” I was completely perplexed. I thought to myself “But it’s a Library! A no-brainer! How could any civic-minded person not support a public library. So I dove in.
I became a trustee on a public library board. At least three times a month (recently, more like three times a week), I gather with people who volunteer their time to serve their community because they believe in the power of books and learning. Most are still working, some are retired — we are all actively committed to the work we do at the library. Our dedicated ranks include professionals trained in fields from teaching to science and technology; from art and history to psychology, finance and communications. Each month we gather to scrutinize checks and vouchers, compare actual and realized budgets, review employees, apply for grants, and obtain bids on everything from oil to cleaning services. We write senators, we attend library trustee training days. We bemoan the limitations of our building and conduct extensive research and planning on the best ways to improve it. We listen to the community and try to balance the differing opinions with our own studies of the issues that face the library. Trust me, it is not glamorous. And it demands quite a bit of time. But we are stewards of learning and so we make the time.
My concern is…who will take on the burden of this important and sustaining work if the library board is dissolved? The Town Board? They have their own important work to do. How will they add running a library with nine employees to their demanding docket? And even with a town-appointed Board, the library is still an educational institution — and no one would suggest the Town run the school district, too.
My mother, my mother-in-law, my brother and my sister-in-law all earned advanced degrees spending many an afternoon and evening buried in work at their public library. During my time as a trustee I’ve been happy to visit with seniors taking advantage of library groups, free subscriptions and tech help. I am amazed at self-starters pushing themselves towards their GED. And there’s my daughter…she loves the library. What kid doesn’t? Thinking about the different kinds of people that use a public library inspires me. It makes me happy! It makes me dig in and work hard (and we do work hard) for what I believe in. In an age of Google searches, Wikipedia research papers, and online courses I rejoice that our library provides such a high standard of service and materials.
That said, I am stunned and disheartened at the vitriol surrounding the governance issue. The distortion of facts is boldface. The paranoid fear mongering is outlandish — “’The Board’ is plotting against the townspeople.” Really? That seems preposterous to me when I look at the 10 intelligent faces sitting around our board table. I know that people on both sides feel attacked. Arguments are over the top. Critical details are ignored. I can’t understand it. But I also cannot understand how a progressive community like Woodstock could, would destabilize funding for such a valuable community resource.
But then we all know the referendum to change governance is really about the building, isn’t it? About the outside, rather than the inside of our library.
I admit, our cobbled-together old library is not without charm at first glance. But if you actually use the library, you know it has issues. I voted to build a better library for our community because the current space is not well-organized and difficult to function in. I am a designer by trade and I believe that form follows function. With a new library, the historically significant part of the existing building could be preserved and the layout could also be optimized. As I carefully maneuver over people and chairs, slowly making my way to my seat in the Director’s Office/Committee Meeting Room/Storage Facility/Archive with shelves piled high to the ceiling with papers, cardboard boxes and artwork, I think to myself “This is not working.” As I sit in the main “Reading Room” for meetings, I wonder why I didn’t remember my gloves in the winter and what that smell is in the summer. I wonder at the inefficient daisy-chained HVAC and electrical solutions. I observe grandparents who cannot make their way up the steep stairs to sit with their grandchildren during story hour. And I get upset when I see people with canes and walkers, let alone wheelchairs, struggle to navigate the entrance to the library. The Woodstock Library is one of the highest rates of use per capita public libraries in the Hudson Valley. And I’m in it. A lot. I can positively say that structurally and organizationally speaking, the building is not integrated so it cannot function well as a whole.
I realize there are those who are suspicious of me and those who simply disagree with me (safe to say they will not vote for me in the next board election, save there is one!) Others can relate to what I’ve said here. I hope all of you will think hard about the issue of governance. The district is what sustains and protects your programming and services. The building is a separate story.
Let’s get our priorities straight.
I encourage you all to read more on the issue of governance from our Library Director, Jessica Kerr and Board President, Dorothea Marcus. Visit Woodstock.org to learn more.
The writer is a Woodstock Library trustee.