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Bicentennial Address

Remarks or What I Meant to Say on August 8, 2010
200th Anniversary of the Peacham Library
Peacham,Vermont
August 8, 2010
David E. L. Brown

          I’m pleased that Becky Jensen asked me to be part of this celebration.   For one thing, it is good to see many of you again.  As Thomas Wolfe reminds us, we can’t actually go home again, except to visit, but it is nice to visit.

          For another thing, I want to join with you in recognizing the value of the Peacham Library, especially in these “perilous” times.  For 200 years, the Peacham Library’s been maintained by many people – an honorable line of librarians, Saturday assistants, board members and officers, friends and volunteers,  consultants (Michael Roche), architects and builders, fund-raisers, benefactors, donors, patrons, and taxpayers  – all of whom – past and present – we salute today.  We wouldn’t be here without you!

          Josette Lyder’s superb chronology of the library is an excellent way to recall names and remember special people from the past: maybe a publisher and politician who grew up in Peacham (George Harvey), maybe Gordon Woods, the architect in 1959, when the library rebuilt after the disastrous fire, or Arnie Aho, architect in 2000 for the Gilmore Gallery and expansion.

          And of course, we honor the past best by looking ahead, asking, “What are we leaving for those who follow us?”  I don’t need to tell you that the future of libraries is being fiercely debated right now. Some public libraries have had to close their branches; (according to the Burlington Free Press) Camden, NJ is about to shut down its entire library system and give its collection away. Some people are questioning if there will be public libraries – at least in a form that we’d recognize – in another few years. Will there be a tercentennial of the Peacham Library?  One “spin” is to say that there are many possibilities before us; form may change, but with effort, the intent will survive.

          I am a little humbled to be included in this long and often dramatic story!

          But first, an update. Anne and I lived in Peacham for 12 years; for half that time I was a member of the Library Board, sometimes secretary, or chair, or vice chair to Beppy Brown & Jean Clark. On Senator Ide’s recommendation, and with the advice and consent of the senate, Governor Dean appointed me to the state Board of Libraries in 2002; (the position previous held by Reeve Lindbergh); after my first 4 year term (and after having moved to Shelburne), I was reappointed by Governor Douglas. It’s a political but non-partisan position.  As chair of the State Board, I began the practice of moving our meetings around the state, so we got to meet local librarians.  Almost all told us how beleaguered they felt.  They worried over failing to keep up with competition.  We heard over and over again, “It’s such a struggle. We have to make so many hard choices. We are really stretched thin.” (Winooski, for instance, where we met a year ago in April, has a significant number of Bhutanese, Nepalese, Somali, and Vietnamese patrons. Many Vermont libraries now serve a variety of new Americans, with many different languages.)

          During my time in office, the State Board of Libraries did two things of long-term significance:
          (1) we set up the VT Public Library Foundation, to gather money for grants to local libraries, entirely outside the state budget , and
          (2) when Sybil McShane resigned as State Librarian, we conducted meetings around the state to listen to what people thought the next librarian should bring to the job and to encourage good candidates to apply; we canvassed the field, conducted interviews, dealt with pressures emanating from the 5th floor of the Pavilion building, and recommended enthusiastically to Gov Douglas that he appoint Marty Reid as the new State Librarian.  (In Vermont, the governor appoints the State Librarian.)  In her two years on the job, Marty has had to deal with brutal reductions in her budget. (We’ve all heard of the state’s deficit and “challenges for change,” which is another way of saying “job cuts,” “reduction in services,” and “supposed efficiencies.”)  In light of these budget cuts, Marty has had to make many hard decisions, including the closing of the Northeast Regional Library, which she was very sorry to have to do, and delayed as long as she could – but still – even with the limitations imposed by reduced income, I am very hopeful for the future of Vermont’s libraries under Marty’s leadership.

          You’ve heard the expression that leadership can be like herding cats? I’ve been keenly aware of how true that is for VT’s libraries.  Take the most obvious fact:  Vermont has a library system with “multiple redundancies.” As Marty (no doubt) told you when she spoke here on Thursday, as part of the library’s Summer Series, we have more public libraries per capita than any other state – 183 libraries to serve 600,000 people.  Just so you know – California has 179 public libraries… with 60 times the population.

          The good thing about our pattern is that 98% of all Vermonters have free access to local library service. The drawback, of course, is that limited financial resources are dissipated.  But, for good or ill, we have what we have – this is our “brand” (by “brand” I mean “the promise we make to our customers or patrons”). The brand of Vermont libraries is the small town library, like the Peacham Library.   I want to say this afternoon:  “Recognize your brand, embrace it, and carry it unabashedly into the future.” That’s how you’ll survive.  (Of course, a $250,000+ increase in endowment helps immensely! Congratulations to the Committee on your superb achievement and to all donors for realizing the impact your gifts will have.)

          Marconi, who gets credit for developing commercial radio, believed that sounds never die; they just get fainter and fainter.  If you listen hard enough, he said, you can catch (as it were) whispers of the past. During the last 3 years of his life (1934-37), Marconi tried to develop “listening” equipment so sensitive that it could pick up sounds from as far back as 2000 years.  Specifically, he wanted to hear Jesus. (Jesus spoke Aramaic, so even if Marconi had been successful, what would he have understood? Did Jesus say, “Blessed are the peace makers,” or “Blessed are the cheese makers?”  Marconi wouldn’t have known the difference.)

          I don’t need to tell you that Marconi got the science wrong, but if we think poetically, it’s charming to imagine that somewhere out there sounds linger on, “a gentle rustling of the leaves of memory.”  Faulkner said much the same (everything he wrote can be understood as an elaboration of this theme): “Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished – like  water after the pebble sinks, the ripples keep moving on, spreading.”  Whitman suggested the same with his line, “I hear American singing” – which was never literally true, but was always true in a larger sense.

          When Renee Zellwegger was preparing to play the part  of Beatrix Potter in a recent film (“Miss Potter“),  she discovered that there are no recordings of  Miss Potter’s voice – which is strange, since she lived until 1943 – but apparently she never recorded in her own voice her stories of Peter Rabbit and his narrow escapes from Mr. McGregor. She never broadcast over the BBC or left an oral history record with the British Museum – so as Zellwegger created the character, she had to imagine an accent that an upper class (“posh”) British woman might have used at that time.  The results were controversial.  She settled on a voice most likely more pleasant and more understandable to American ears than Potter’s probably was. But, we don’t know. Beatrix Potter’s voice is lost forever.

          So is Benning Wentworth’s.  But to lay to rest (perhaps!) a persistent Peacham question, let’s imagine (think poetically) that Marconi was right and we can use his “technology” to listen to a discussion held Dec. 31, 1763 in Governor Benning Wentworth’s Little Harbor Mansion, near Portsmouth NH.  If Marconi were right, we could hear Wentworth and his co-conspirators discussing names for towns they were creating in the wilderness across the Connecticut River. We might hear someone ask the Governor, “how about calling this particular grant, near Reigate and Barnet (good English names) after a town I knew south of London – listed in the Domesday Book (1086) as “Pecheham.”  Is that a short “e”? or a long “e”? Is it “Pecham?” or “Peckham?” or maybe “Peacham?”  “Some people talk better than they spell.” Why not make “Peacham” out of “Pecheham,” especially since we can‘t go back and listen to how people spoke 237 years ago, and find out for sure.

          Whatever the source, “Peacham” is now a distinctive & fully American name!

          The title for Dee Brown‘s book,  “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” came from Stephen Vincent Benet‘s poem, “American Names.”
          I have fallen in love with American names
          The sharp names that never get fat
          Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat
          You can bury my body in Sussex grass
          I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
          Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
“Bury my heart at Peacham” doesn’t scan as well, but as a sentiment it has an enduring quality – lingering, faintly echoing over the beautiful hills of Vermont.

          So it is right that this public library is “The Peacham Library” because the name emphasizes – the town’s uniqueness – and (secondly) a commonality.  It is an expression of a democratic ideal.  Back when the Public Library Movement began (only a little more than 100 years ago), “public” didn’t mean tax-supported, but simply “open to all“ – not just available to subscribers, as in the case of Franklin’s library in Philadelphia, or in Peacham case, at the very beginning, the members of the Juvenile Library Society who paid their annual dues.  So now this public library is of the people, by the people, and for the people.

         Vermont has many libraries named for benefactors:  the Pope in Danville, Cobleigh in Lyndonville, Goodrich in Newport, Haskell in Derby Line, Aldrich in Barre, Kellogg-Hubbard in Montpelier, Varnum in Cambridge, and many more.

           We’re familiar with the concept of  “naming rights.”  Public Libraries did it long before banks started putting their names on ballparks and the Boston Garden!  Calling your library “the Peacham Library” reflects an important truth: your town’s library is everyone‘s library!

          The second part of the name, of course, comes from the Latin for bookshop, “libraria.”  When I entered library school in 1972, we were told that the profession was rebranding itself; we were to think of ourselves – not as librarians – but as “media specialists.”  We were told we would be like Hank Morgan, the “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” – each of us a technocrat, bringing the blessings of technology to a primitive world.  That made sense at the time, when we needed to emphasize that, “Libraries aren’t just about books anymore,” but it got old quickly.  The “multimedia resource center” was left behind by a technology that was increasingly in the hands of the people.  Today, a smart phone provides access to more information than a public library, plus it takes pictures.  Is there any music you can’t get from iTunes?  Are any films not available from NetFlix?  Do you need directions? – what happened to your GPS?  Today’s library’s customers “do” for themselves in many ways involving information discovery and processing.  For example, when we travel, we book our flight directly, print our boarding pass, reserve a hotel room online, rent a car; (in most cases) travel agents are no longer necessary.

          The point is obvious – Libraries do their best, but they struggle to keep up with technology.  Some data to suggest how that struggle is going: in 1947, when people were asked, “Where do you go for information?” only 1% replied, “The public library.”  70 years later, a similar survey found that 82% of today’s information seekers turn first to their computers; still only 1% begin with their library. In other words, most people do not go to libraries for either technology or ready reference.

          If the big question is – “what do patrons want?”  The answer is obvious: we want BOOKS.  Libraries were, are, and will continue to be mostly about books:  books we want to read, but might not want to buy; books of passing interest, books we’d like to share; books we want to discuss (as we did at the Peacham Library many times – Gaskill‘s “Cranford,” Annie Dillard‘s memories of growing up in Pittsburgh, John Muir‘s travels, the memoirs of an ex-slave, Sojourner Truth‘s “Ain‘t I a Woman?” speech from 1851, Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Divine Comedy – not all of it light reading – but  books which informed, inspired, entertained, energized, kept us up late at night, changed our lives…)

          In T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” Merlin advises young “Wart” (later King Arthur):  “The best thing for being sad, said Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “Is to learn something“ (which often means  –  “read something“).

          “That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then….”  READ.

          Anne and I live now near the Shelburne Museum.  The steamship Ticonderoga, the centerpiece of the Museum, is at the end of our street. On a pleasant summer afternoon, I can take my library book – say Howard Frank Mosher’s baseball story set in Kingdom County, “Waiting for Teddy Williams” – or Nathaniel  Philbrick’s  Last Stand” (which makes the case at considerable length that Custer had it coming) and sit in the shade on the Ti’s upper deck, enjoying  a breeze off the lake (it’s almost as nice as Martin’s Pond) – no cell phone, no Kindle, no ePad, no digital anything – just a book from my public library.  Who needs anything more?

          So my advice to you as friends and supporters and beneficiaries of the Peacham Library is just two things:  Embrace your brand (honor your past), and know what your patrons want (and so continue what you have been doing indefinitely into the future). 

          I too honor the Peacham Library – both the Peacham part, and the Library part: both the who and the what.  I hope you are pleased with the past, and eager for the future.

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