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What happens when a library loses its spirit?

Rockingham Free Public Library is in a morass of local politics and poor personal behavior

Elayne Clift is a former trustee of the Rockingham Free Public Library and serves as chair of its Friends of the Library committee.

Saxtons River

Andrew Carnegie must be turning in his grave.

When the great philanthropist provided funds for the Rockingham Free Public Library to be built in 1909 — one of four public libraries he endowed in the state — he could little have imagined that shortly after its centennial, in the midst of major renovations that would recapture its history, the library known as one of the best in Vermont would be in such turmoil.

How heartbroken he would be to see the devastating sight of a beautifully renovated building full of books but devoid of the staff spirit that drew devoted patrons to its many programs and services.

How dreadful a realization that what he envisioned as a monument to learning, civility, wholesome discourse and the finer instincts of humankind today seems more like a tombstone.

* * *

How has it come to this?

People who have followed events over the last year know the details and drama of a construction firm gone bust, a temporary move during renovation which many knew was unwarranted and financially unsound, and perhaps more.

What many might not be as aware of — although the ungrounded firing of the library’s fine director last week makes it more clear — is the full impact of poor management and political machinations wrought by some members of the Board of Trustees that could, at best, take years to recover from.

Many of us worry whether things will ever be quite the same. What happens when a community loses its library, literally or in spirit?

For some, libraries might be just a place to drop off and pick up books, to use a computer, to warm up on a winter day. And that’s fine.

But for many of us, libraries represent something vital in our lives, from the practical to the ethereal.

They are a venue, and their staff a rich resource, when we need to understand things in the world. They are a place to stretch our own mind and the minds of our kids.

Through a wealth of services and programs, we learn new things, debate ideas, participate in a wider world, embrace art and culture, love literature.

Libraries simply have a huge impact on a community and its residents of all ages. They should be a place of quiet joy, not derision and difficulty and harmful decisions by a few people with short-term power and delusions about their role as elected officials.

* * *

It’s easy to become jaded about moral corruption, ethical breaches, and political games when such repugnant things occur in big cities. We’ve come to expect them in places where political landscapes loom large and misconduct is ubiquitous.

But when similar behavior takes over in small towns, we are shocked and disheartened by similar travesties. When they occur on a scale such as we are experiencing now in our own community, with such reprehensible consequences, we suffer. And we grieve.

But we also act.

That is why many of us have petitioned, rallied, written letters to editors, attended Board of Trustees and Selectboard meetings, and more.

And still we have been unheard, our voices silenced, our efforts thwarted as we try to end the consequences of destructive decisions by some whose cunning can only be described as diabolical and by the unintentional collusion of others whose silence, in the end, is enabling.

Such silence — when the community is ignored, when unilateral decisions and arbitrary rules are rendered, when staff are made ill and their jobs are threatened — is clearly unacceptable.

And as Thomas Paine knew, “The only thing required for evil to prevail is for good men [sic] to do nothing.”

* * *

Clearly, the time has come for the Board of Trustees of the library, charged with good stewardship of a precious community resource, to find its collective voice and its individual moral conscience. For if not them, who? If not now, when?

Andrew Carnegie’s generous gift of a beautiful library cannot be allowed to languish in a morass of local politics and personal poor behavior.

The staff, all of whom have given so brilliantly of their time and talent, cannot be betrayed. The community that loves its library cannot be ignored.

The time to put an end to this debacle is now.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #222 (Wednesday, September 25, 2013).

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