BRATTLEBORO—For 22 years Jerry Carbone has been riding a tiger. Now he’s hopping off.
The longtime director of the Brooks Memorial Library will retire on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015.
Originally from Denver, Carbone, 65, took his master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin in 1975.
He was hired at Brooks in November of 1978 and took over as the library’s director in 1993. That means he has spent almost his entire library career in Brattleboro.
Calm when he needs to be, Carbone is always ready to do battle in the interests of the library. Whether he’s fighting off people who want to defund it or who disagree with his vision of a library with more technology and fewer paper-and-ink books, he somehow manages to convince people that he is doing the right thing.
He’s got a perfect touch: sweet when he needs to be and feisty when the library patrons’ interests are threatened.
“Working with Jerry is a pleasure,” said Carbone’s predecessor, Meris Morrison, who hired him in 1978. “He’s calm and intelligent and well-thought-out. He thinks things out and then goes ahead and does it. We’ll miss him.”
Moving people up
Libraries, which are publicly funded, offer free information as well as entertainment to everyone who comes in the door. Consequently, they often find themselves at the center of controversies, if not social upheaval. (Remember the battle over privacy when the usa patriot Act first came out.)
Carbone, who comes from a family of Italian immigrants, considers libraries to be “escalators of mobility.”
“Libraries have historically provided access to people who are not part of the system,” he said. “I mean in terms of inherited wealth or privilege. Libraries have always served immigrants. Even now, urban libraries have English classes for immigrant speakers.”
He says that libraries “get people moving up. I know it’s happened here because people come in to use our computers. And we give people one-on-one assistance in how to use them.
“Especially in times of recession and economic dislocation, historically, you find library use increasing. If people have lost their jobs and had to give up their Internet connection, they can come here. We also have lots of free educational programs and lectures.”
Right now libraries are in the middle of a different kind of epic battle. Imagine, for example, a library with far fewer books than you find on the shelves at Brooks right now. Or maybe a library without any books at all.
That might be the future that Carbone has helped to usher in.
“When Jerry came in, he was interested in computerization,” Morrison said. “He led us in that. His position was first to get us online and retire the old card catalog and then push us ahead into today’s world. He was at the right place for where we needed to go.”
When Carbone began his career, information was delivered by way of the printed page. By the time he took over as the director in 1993, libraries were standing at the doorway of the electronic age. The Internet and services like email were already up and running, albeit on a smaller scale, and the first iteration of the World Wide Web had just been born and was about to blossom beyond the world of computer science into the mainstream.
“The change has been so rapid,” Carbone said. “Technology has changed so fast.”
Carbone digitalized the library. He made the data in the old oak card catalog machine-readable and finally got rid of it entirely in 1993. He added computers for the staff and workstations for the public. He added e-books. He made available free and online more than 50 databases, including Ancestry.com and The New York Times. Brooks joined the Catamount Library Network, so its patrons can share resources with libraries all over the state.
Under Carbone’s leadership, Brooks won three Vermont Public Library Foundation grants from 2001 to 2004 that helped update the collections, upgrade the computers, catalog the local history and fine arts resources, and make the library a more welcoming space through new lighting and furniture.
From paper to digital — and in between
Soon, Brooks will have laptops to hand out, replacing the workstations that take up desirable space on the library floor.
And now Brooks is slowly phasing out books. Why have 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on your shelves when you can access it online? Or use Google? Why have books on paper at all, when you can have books delivered to your hand-held device anywhere in the world?
“Paper has been with us for more than 2,000 years,” Carbone said. “We had moveable type and printing for 500 years. People still seem to want to read pages between covers. I do. I read both print and digitally. I think the conversion to totally using digital books that people will accept is a ways off. Not to say there won’t be, at some point in time, a conversion. Then the printed book will take more specialized space.”
Carbone compared the conversion from paper to digital to the predicted demise of radio when television came in.
“It didn’t die,” he said. “It got more focused. You have NPR and other really great things. So maybe that’s what will happen with the printed book. I don’t see anything happening really soon — that shift from paper to digital. But it will happen.
“In the first couple of years of e-readers and e-books, the growth was exponential. But now it’s leveling off. There’s something like 5,000 to 6,000 digital transactions per year here at Brooks. People can download e-books to their device and they can hold them for 14 days. We can do that with audio, too. I think the shift to downloadable audio is going to go faster than from print to e-books.”
Brooks once housed a large collection of genealogy books. Carbone has dispersed much of it to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and upstate Vermont.
“We made the collection more relevant to our local community by preserving in print what we cannot get through some of the online resources,” Carbone said.
He described the old genealogy room as “a large space with a relatively lesser-used collection. People have been using the resources online. Before, they would have to travel to the location to do the research. But for us to keep a large amount of paper for research purposes that is available now from online sources would be inefficient.”
Change doesn’t come easy, especially in Brattleboro.
“But it’s like any change that happens,” Carbone said. “People are resistant at first and then they adapt and even grow to like the change once they discover the potential. ‘Hey! As a library patron, I not only have access to our library’s collection, but I can see what the other Catamount Library consortium members own, and I can actually request those items, which will be sent to Brooks for me to checkout.’”
Knowing when to go
Carbone is not retiring because of his age, although he ruefully admits that turning 65 made him think seriously about it.
“I want to have some time to explore things which I’m interested in exploring — personal things, but close to library interests,” Carbone said.
And, he added, “I think it’s a really good time for a leadership change right now.”
He said that the Friends of Brooks Memorial Library, an organization that supports the library and its activities, is “going full speed ahead,” and the annual appeal was very successful last year.
“The recent Ronald Read bequest of $1.2 million will give the library opportunities to make some changes. And I’ve been here for 37 years.”
Carbone will use part of his free time to plunge into his new love — genealogy.
“First, I’m going to do a 15-week online genealogy course from Boston University and apply it to solving my own family mysteries,” Carbone said. “Maybe then I’ll be interested in helping people do their own research. Maybe specialize in Italian-American genealogies. And I want to do some writing, too.”
A search committee composed of library trustees, members of town government and the general community will choose Carbone’s replacement.
“There’s a certain serendipity-ness,” Carbone said. “In 1975, [former Town Manager] Corky Elwell was involved in hiring Meris Morrison as the new director. It’s been 40 years since a person has been recruited from outside the library, and that person will be hired by Corky’s son, present Town Manager Peter Elwell. It’s beautiful symmetry.”
Working at the library has been a wonderful experience, Carbone said.
“I’ve always said that to be a library director in Vermont, Brattleboro was the best place for it to happen,” he said. “It’s a very supportive community, I’ve had a great team to work with — the staff, the trustees, the Friends and the town administration.
“We’ve had some rocky times because of budget issues, but everybody wants the library to succeed for the community. I’m hoping I’m leaving the institution in good shape — the shape I found it in when I took it over. Brattleboro people love their library.”