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Librarian a ‘practical visionary’

Jerry Carbone honored as best in the state

Visit the Brooks Memorial Library online at www.brooks.lib.vt.us.

BRATTLEBORO—Brooks Memorial Library Jerry Carbone's leadership has been recognized with the Vermont Library Association’s 2008 Sarah Hagar Award, given yearly to a librarian in the state who has provided outstanding service.

A 30-year veteran librarian at Brooks and director since 1993 who directs a thriving, multi-faceted program in times when library and information technologies are undergoing tremendous change, Carbone swiftly removes himself from the focus when discussing the award.

At a surprise awards ceremony at the Vermont Library Conference in Burlington in May, VLA President Barbara Doyle-Wilch praised Carbone as a “practical visionary” and a role model for other librarians. A contingent from Brattleboro, including Brattleboro friends, Brooks Memorial Library trustees and staff members, his wife Kathleen Maisto, and Town Manager Barbara Sondag, were on hand to see Carbone honored.

“I was totally surprised and humbled by it,” Carbone says. “I’m just the expression of my staff, my trustees, the town. I feel like a surfer, riding the wave. It’s really like an ensemble,” he says.

Instead, the energetic, passionate Carbone focuses on the institution, speaking of staff and new programs, and the library as an integral part of a democratic society, offering services in the spirit of community needs.

The two-level library is spacious, light, and full of people on a weekday, many on computers and just as many in the stacks. An original of the sculpture, “Spirit of Life” by Daniel Chester French — famed creator of the Lincoln Memorial — graces the front window. The quote “Life is only sparkling to the brim” accompanies the bronze maiden bearing a cup aloft.

A deep-seated belief fuels Carbone’s passion for libraries.

“I really feel it is one of the true bedrocks of democracy,” Carbone observes. “We have truly tried to make our public library the people’s universe, where they can educate themselves, entertain themselves, and have access to information. In other countries, no one has quite the same ethic.”

Technology drives change

“Technology is the biggest driver of change,” Carbone observes. “It’s the nexus of what we do here. It’s changed what happens behind the scenes.”

When Carbone arrived in 1978, computers had not yet had an impact on libraries; all aspects of inventory were controlled manually, as was the process of checking out media.

A second area of technological change came in the form of the Internet. “It gave librarians the ability to go beyond their physical space,” says Carbone.

“We want to support the traditional, purchasing the best materials, cataloguing, making materials available,” Carbone says. “We also want to take advantage of the new social networking technologies [like MySpace or Facebook]. We have a teen blog and a reference blog.”

While Carbone doesn’t confess to be technologically savvy, when pressed he admits that he likes what the applications can do for the library. In reality, Carbone seems pretty comfortable with technology and uses it easily within the library. He even has his own blog.

“Libraries are really conversations, with books, with the literature [you’ve] read, sometimes with yourself,” Carbone says. “We also want to create those conversations virtually.”

Programming invites conversation

“I love the idea of bringing culture, authors, politics into the library: having people here, sitting, asking questions,“ Carbone says of the author talks, book discussions, First Wednesday Lecture Series, computer classes, poetry readings, and film screenings that draw people into the building. The programs are designed to serve a diversity of ages.

A year-long reading/discussion series, “American Political and Presidential History,” discussing presidential biographies, will wrap up in October, just before the national elections, with discussions of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Another program has introduced the audience to using genealogical research to find genetic inclinations toward disease.

The library has begun taping its talks and broadcasting them on Brattleboro Community Television, Carbone said. Eventually he plans to link the taped programs directly to the library’s Web site.

Serving the public

Directed by a board of nine trustees, the library employs Carbone and six other full-time staffers, as well as eight part-timers and a handful of others on call.

Volunteers — 40 to 50 of them — remain crucial to the library’s operation, Carbone says. An active Friends of the Library group, with its three-times-yearly book sale and quarterly newsletter, rounds out the cast of players.

Brooks Memorial serves almost 12,000 residents of Brattleboro, as well as the surrounding communities. Ninety-five percent of the library’s funding, according to Carbone, comes from the town of Brattleboro.

Library cards are provided to residents for free, and those from other towns may purchase a card. About two years ago, to remedy a need for non-resident students attending Brattleboro schools to access the library without charge, Carbone and his staff approached the Board of Trustees to allow free cards for students in this situation.

The library draws 171,000 visitors every year; on any given day that’s about 600 people through the door. And, says Carbone, “every morning there’s a line; at 9:45 there are eight to ten people waiting.” Last year’s records show 175,000 transactions, and 9,600 people attending 404 programs.

“By and large we serve all the people, all who come, but there’s also more we can and want to do,” Carbone says. He cites the Young Adult section as “somewhat inadequate,” but explains it has improved since 2002 when the area was given a defined space and staff hours were dedicated to the its development and maintenance.

Living a philosophy

Carbone actively participates in areas beyond the glass walls of his office. A member of the Emergency Management Operations Center and its human resources contact for the town, Carbone also serves on the author committee of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, the executive board of Windham World Affairs Council, the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Vermont Library Association, and the editorial board for Reference Books Bulletin in the publication Booklist.

Carbone was also one of many Vermont librarians who responded strongly and decisively to the Patriot Act — specifically, the National Security Letter (NSL) provision — which obligates librarians to violate their long-established professional protocol in protecting patron privacy to comply with letters ordering them to provide records to the FBI on demand with no prior court order.

A federal court in 2007 found the NSLs unconstitutional.

“It’s no surprise librarians were among the first to react and, with the VLA, send a letter detailing their concerns about the USA PATRIOT Act and NSLs to Bernie Sanders.” The U.S. senator brought legislation to reconsider discussion back to the congressional level.

“The [concept of] intellectual freedom, the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment connect with books and materials that support the right to write and think,” Carbone says. “I believe in the Constitution, freedom of speech and freedom to access it. We’re here to collect and house information.”

Reference librarian at heart

Carbone began at Brooks Memorial as a reference librarian in 1978; in 1985 he was promoted to assistant director. In 1993, he became the library director when his predecessor retired.

“At heart,” says Carbone, “I’m still a reference librarian. A patron needs a piece of a puzzle, and I can help figure that out.”

His activities these days aren’t so different — just on a much larger scale.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #29 (Friday, July 4, 2008).

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