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Jeff Potter/The Commons

The mission of the Marlboro Community Center, posted boldly.


Building community by the book

Marlboro residents create a space for residents of a small, isolated hilltown to gather: a community center and a library

The Marlboro Community Center and Town Library is open and staffed on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon. It is also open for self-service during the week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, visit marlborocommunity.center. To see a list of events at the Marlboro Community Center, visit marlborocommunity.center/events/calendar/.

MARLBORO—A long-desired community center — with the town’s first library — has recently opened in the heart of the village.

The idea of establishing the Marlboro Community Center and the Marlboro Town Library has been on the table for several years, but “there wasn’t anywhere to put it,” said Gemma Ollis, a Community Center partner and member of the library board.

In the Marlboro Meeting House — a large revival-era Congregational Church — an office-sized space adjacent to the main hall and kitchen is now walled with bookshelves.

With fewer than 1,000 residents, surrounded by forestland, and bisected by a state highway, the town faces challenges in defining itself, and organizers of the project saw a public library as a way to cultivate community.

“We wanted to be in the center of the village, and we needed parking, and we needed things like heat and a bathroom, and internet, and phone; and we just couldn’t find anywhere for a really long time,” Ollis said. “And then this space became free because the preschool that used to be here moved to the elementary school.”

The building itself is owned by the Marlboro Meeting House, a congregational church that conducts services in the summer and on holidays and rents the sanctuary for weddings and other events.

It also rents the lower space to the Marlboro Community Center.

While the two organizations share the same building, “the library was always imagined as an independent component,” said Andy Horton, chair of the library committee.

“Both the Marlboro Community Center and the Marlboro Town Library are organizations under the umbrella of the [Marlboro] Alliance. But we have our own bank accounts and raise money independently of each other. We have our own boards and make our own decisions. But we work very closely with one another understanding that we share a space and serve the same population.”

Previous efforts to get Marlboro residents reading have seen some success.

“We put up four little libraries in various places around town,” Felicia Tober, secretary of the library committee, said of the “wee libraries,” outdoor book-trading boxes that function by the honor system.

But these never matched the vision that some had for a more community-oriented Marlboro.

“Our goal is to provide a warm, welcoming, comfortable space,” Horton said.

Horton, Tober, and Ollis were each recruited by librarian and former board president, Jess Weitz.

“Jess is no longer connected, though we pay her due reverence and respect for dreaming up the project in the first place and getting us started,” Horton said.

The volunteers thought it vital to provide a physical space “where people can read, check out books that are of interest to them that they can’t get anywhere else in town for free,” as Horton put it.

The meeting house provides just that space.

Tall windows and paintings line the walls of the spacious multipurpose room. Yoga groups, political discussion groups, and a regular film club are only a few of the organizations that gather in the space.

Not quite ‘fully realized’

With the launch of the library, Marlboro joins 180 other towns that make Vermont the state with the highest number of libraries per capita in the U.S.

“While we have a pretty sweet space and book collection, and a way to check books out electronically and keep track of circulation, we are not a fully realized, state library,” said Horton, herself a certified librarian. “We get no funding from the town. We have no paid staff. We have no regular budget to buy books.”

“It was Jess’s vision to have a real lending library with a real librarian and a budget, and it’s still our vision [but] that’s not what this is at the moment,” she said.

In the meantime, Horton, Tober, and Ollis, along with fellow board members Hilary Duggan, Dianna Noyes, Cathy Osman, and Carol Hendrickson share the task of stewarding the facility.

“Every member on the board has something valuable to contribute in expertise or wisdom,” Horton said. “Three of us are the acquisitions committee, others of us write grants, or deal with money, or just have great ideas. We get things done together. And do everything, including processing and shelving and cataloging. In short, we are all ’the librarian.’ ”

The Marlboro Town Library offers more than a unique atmosphere. Its selection of books is curated for leisure, designed to fill a void between the offerings of the respective libraries at the Marlboro School and Marlboro College, which offers library privileges to residents.

“We do have a computerized self-checkout system, and we have really good new books, but we don’t have a paid librarian,” she added. “Everything is volunteer.”

“The college also has a fabulous library, mostly academic books,” Horton explained, “so what we tried to do here is not overlap a whole bunch, to have a collection that is particular to most of the people who don’t want to go up and paw through academia or want a grown-up book they won’t find at the elementary-school library.”

“It’s really important to mention the Marlboro Alliance, because they are our biggest champions and supporters,” Horton said.

The all-volunteer nonprofit civic organization funded and organized the Marlboro Community Center, which, in turn, has created an organization and structure for the library. The Marlboro Alliance continues to sponsor and pay rents for the two projects.

Other funding has come in the form of “grants we have raised for furniture and books, and from the generosity of people like Jonathan Biss,” Horton said.

Biss, the co-director of the Marlboro Music Festival, raised almost $6,000 for the undertaking in a benefit concert last fall. Townspeople have not only donated funds; they’ve also contributed what project organizers describe as “high quality used books.”

But the Community Center and Library both represent much more to the town than simply a building with heat, bathroom, internet, and a phone, organizers said.

“Many of these towns all used to have community centers,” Horton said. “Marlboro is one of the few Vermont towns that didn’t have a library.”

“Right now there’s a woman here who saw it online and just came,” Tober said over the din of the knitting club in the next room. “She’s now met 15 people and several that live near her that she didn’t know. It doesn’t get more important than that.

“We have not had a place where people could get together in town, where anybody could get together in town without paying.”

Tober pointed out that access to the beaches in town on South Pond requires membership in either of two organizations that own and conserve the shorefront property.

To Horton and therest of the committee, offering the library services completely for free was a priority, “because” as Ollis noted, “the Brattleboro library isn’t free.”

While a library card is free for taxpaying residents of Brattleboro, Brooks Memorial Library charges nonresidents $32 for six months, $62 for one year, or $110 for two years.

“Here, anybody in the town can walk in and be here, and I think it’s just awesome to connect with somebody you don’t know,” Horton said.

“People you don’t know leave with books in their arms,” Tober added. “I mean, it’s emotional.”

Bringing townspeople together

The sense of community doesn’t materialize from nothing. Driving the Community Center and Library projects is the premise that townspeople need recognizable public spaces in order to meet, interact, and belong.

Horton described neighbors “who live down the road who I never see out and about anywhere, but now they come to the library twice a week to get books, and that’s just so great. I just love that.”

“I think you see the loss of small town life [these days]” Horton continued, “because of the big box stores, because of online shopping, there’s not a lot of reason to go into town to do much of anything.”

“So I don’t know what the future will bring,” she added, “but I know that people need people, and that’s what community is.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #508 (Wednesday, May 1, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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