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Lessons from a library fiasco

Just a handful of people can wreak havoc in a good community — and it’s damned near impossible to stop them

Elayne Clift served on the Rockingham Free Library Board of Trustees twice and headed the Friends of the Library for four years. Her monthly column usually covers topics of national and international politics, women’s, and human-rights issues.

Saxtons River

And so, at last, it comes to an end.

With the election of four new, highly qualified board members to the Rockingham Free Public Library Board of Trustees, a sad chapter in the life of our community draws to a close, making way for fresh perspectives, new energy and, in time, much-needed healing — for individuals and for a town.

It is a chapter that will not, and should not, be quickly forgotten. But it offers a new and optimistic beginning — along with some important lessons for all of us.

No longer a member of that board and therefore freed from a certain propriety as a public official, I can say now that the past six months have been very difficult and deeply disturbing for me. Despite many people offering an outpouring of support for my willingness to step up to the plate, it’s not easy having one’s integrity, professionalism, and character attacked.

I’ve been harassed, bullied, and threatened. I’ve been called “pretentious,” “self-aggrandizing,” and a liar. I’ve actually had occasion to feel fearful of my personal safety.

No one, particularly in a small Vermont village, should be made to suffer such insults or worries, least of all someone serving voluntarily for the good of a beloved community institution.

But here’s what is most disturbing about this experience: I have realized — seen “up close and personal” — that just a handful of people with malevolent motives, destructive compulsions, and private agendas can wreak havoc in an otherwise kind and stable community filled with good and caring people. And it is damned near impossible to stop them.

As one concerned young individual said to me one day, “Until this, I never understood how dictatorships worked or how dictators got away with it. Now I do.”

Whether we’re talking about the Tea Party, a bullying governor, a fascist dictator, or a few board members run amok, the frightening fact is that in the wrong hands, institutions, towns, states, and democratic countries can be quickly brought down, destroyed by forces that too often win by default if not subterfuge.

* * *

And therein lies the lesson of the library fiasco that nearly laid low what some have called “the best library in the state.”

Fewer and fewer people are willing to engage in civic activities, a growing phenomenon over the last several decades exacerbated by computer technology that increasingly isolates us from one another.

As Robert Putnam points out in his book Bowling Alone, we no longer donate to, participate in, or orchestrate activities, whether church, school, or workplace-based. We have stopped investing in what Putnam calls “social capital,” networks that foster human connection and healthy social change.

One of the results of this disengagement is that fewer people run for local office. Another is that fewer people vote. And those who do fail to invest the time and energy it takes to learn who the candidates are and what they stand for. Many of these candidates run unopposed.

But the bottom line is you get what you vote for. Elect the wrong people, and it’s the kiss of death — for your community, your town, your state, and your country.

We got lucky this time, thanks to the hard work of a group of concerned citizens who organized a winning strategy and a successful campaign. But the worst thing we could do now is become complacent.

Because there’s another library election next year and another the year after that. There are Village Trustees and Selectboards to seat. There are future state representatives and governors to elect. Nationally, this is an election year, too, and the outcome couldn’t be more critical.

The fact is, the democracy that ensures our participation in the events of our lives also demands that we participate in its very survival — at all levels of governance — lest it disappear before our eyes with no way to stop its sudden demise.

Vigilance is vital in the affairs of our treasured institutions and traditions. Voting smart is key to our collective future. That’s what the recent library crisis in our community teaches us.

Let the lesson not be lost, lest yet another young person might come to ask, “How do dictators get away with it?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #245 (Wednesday, March 12, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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