The state Department of Libraries is requesting $15.9 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to fix leaking roofs, disintegrating floors and other longstanding maintenance problems at some of Vermont’s historic public libraries.
During a hearing last Wednesday, Tom McMurdo, acting head of the department, showed the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions photos of disintegrating floor tiles, broken marble stair treads, moldy windows and other signs of decay at libraries around Vermont. It has been 25 years since the state's 183 public libraries got state or federal money for building maintenance, he told lawmakers.
“Libraries cannot thrive on goodwill alone,” said McMurdo, who had been filling in until the newly hired state librarian, Catherine Delneo started work on Monday, February 14. “Towns and library boards do their best to maintain these buildings, but they are literally falling apart in some cases.”
Vermont’s libraries do more than loan books nowadays. They also serve as community meeting places; offer free WiFi and often access to computers; and provide an array of classes, lectures, and cultural presentations. Many lend out objects as varied as snowshoes, garden tools, sports equipment, prom dresses and puzzles.
In many cases, the buildings are more than a century old. In the larger, better-funded towns, they have been repaired and expanded over the years. Manchester, Shelburne, South Burlington, and South Hero have built new libraries in the last decade, while others have completed extensive additions and renovations to their buildings.
But in smaller towns without generous patrons, library buildings and services can be a meager affair. Kevin Unrath, the immediate past president of the Vermont Library Association, said in an interview that some are only open 10 hours a week; at least two lack indoor bathroom facilities.
In Department of Library surveys, librarians have reported that their greatest need is for construction that would help them comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“If you look at other communities that are not so well off, they have library services that I would call sub-standard,” said Unrath, who is director of Shelburne's Pierson Library. “There is a social justice element. You’re on your own to a large degree when it comes to public library funding.”
Department of Libraries
A bucket to catch a roof leak at the Rochester Public Library.
Some of the state’s libraries are owned by cities or towns; others are nonprofits. Not a lot is known about the individual buildings, but that’s about to change. Last year, the legislature created a working group on libraries that plans to publish a report in late 2023 with a wealth of new details, as well as recommendations for state funding.
Vermont’s one of just eight states with no state funding for libraries, Unrath said.
McMurdo outlined the administration's funding proposal for the first time last week. The money would come from $113 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds earmarked for capital improvements.
In an interview after the hearing, Rep. Alice Emmons (D-Springfield), chair of the Corrections and Institutions Committee, noted that the panel will also hear capital funding requests from the judicial and legislative branches.
She said that library advocates have been requesting money for building repairs since the 1990s.
"I think libraries do need a lot of support, and if we can use some of this money, I think the committee would be sympathetic to it," she said.
Vermont Department of Libraries
Mold and cracked glass at the Arvin A. Brown Library in Richford
While $15 million would be used for repairs, the remaining $900,000 would be earmarked for two new positions to administer the program over the next four years, including the hiring of a construction manager.
The money might be administered as part of a matching grant program, McMurdo said. That would require libraries to raise money for construction, “which is something that doesn’t come naturally, necessarily, to folks in the library world,” he said. “That will build libraries that are more capable of seeking funding for additional construction needs in the future.”
The state Department of Libraries operates under Vermont’s executive branch. If the legislature approves the proposal, the Scott Administration would submit its grant plan to the U.S. Treasury for its approval as well.
Vermont Department of Libraries
A broken marble stair tread at Fletcher Memorial Library in Ludlow
The proposal outlined by McMurdo wouldn’t address the larger issue of how public libraries are supported in the future.
Unrath noted that the care and upkeep of small-town library buildings has taken on greater importance in recent years. Many public spaces, such as schools, are no longer available for meetings as a result of security concerns, and libraries serve more needs now than ever before.
“Everyone is welcome in a library; we feel like that is as good an argument as any for taking care of them,” Unrath said. “We’re not asking for extravagant, opulent, better-than-ever libraries. We want our libraries to be well-maintained and appropriate for the community they are in. That’s the goal.”