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Work: State Librarian Jason Broughton Balances the Books


  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Jason Broughton

Name: Jason Broughton
Job: State librarian
Town: Barre

Jason Broughton didn't always want to be a librarian. Originally, he thought he'd be a veterinarian or a doctor; after graduating from college in Florida, he spent many years as a science teacher. Then, when he moved home to South Carolina in 2008 to care for his ailing mother, he found it impossible to get a teaching job during the recession. So he started writing a job-readiness curriculum for a workforce center in Charleston.

"Well, this is just how life can be serendipitous sometimes," said Broughton.

In Charleston, he met the person who would inspire him to consider switching careers: librarian Cynthia Hurd. After learning about his work with job seekers, she invited him to the library to make presentations.

"After my last session, she said, 'I know this is crazy, Jason, [but] I really think you should be a librarian,'" Broughton recalled. "And I had never had somebody do that. And I was like, 'There's money in librarianship? Do they make money? How does that work?'"

Hurd was one of nine people killed by a white supremacist at a Charleston church in 2015. Her legacy lives on through a literacy foundation established in her name, and through Broughton. He got his first librarian job at the South Carolina State Library in 2010 and earned a master's degree in library science in 2013.

Earlier this year, Broughton became state librarian of Vermont, the first African American to hold the job. As head of the Department of Libraries, he oversees services to state government and support to smaller libraries across Vermont.

Seven Days chatted with Broughton about the future of and challenges to Vermont's libraries.

SEVEN DAYS: What does a day in the life of a state librarian look like?

JASON BROUGHTON: It starts at 7:45. Usually, however, I am in the office much sooner. You are always going to be in conversations looking at federal appropriations, and then [deciding] how to utilize that money. [Or,] it might be looking at 'Should we apply to this grant?' [Or,] it's thinking through programs and projects.

There are two divisions within the department. One division is known as information and access. We are our state government's library. We always need to make sure that we are providing services to state government in the form of research.

The other is more forward facing, which is library advancement. This is helping lots of public libraries in different ways. We usually are ... putting out small fires and ... giving out large ideas. It is for each public library to decide how best they would like to use [those ideas]. We do not tell our libraries what to do.

SD: What are some of the biggest challenges facing Vermont's libraries today?

JB: I do think about this; it doesn't keep me up at night, but it definitely stirs me up in the morning. [One is] sustainability. Vermont has a lot of beautiful historic libraries, and so [we think about] preservation and building maintenance. Another aspect would be helping Vermont's libraries provide a standard that Vermonters would appreciate. That could be saying that all libraries have Wi-Fi service. I'll even take it down a notch, aiming to be able to say all libraries in Vermont have a bathroom.

SD: Is that not the case?

JB: That is not currently the case.

SD: It seems there's been increased attention on the role libraries play in providing essential services to underprivileged populations. Is this an actual shift in the services libraries provide, or have libraries been doing this kind of work for a long time?

JB: It is not, believe it or not, a shift at all. The format has changed. For example, I have a claim to fame in the sense of workforce development in libraries. People were always coming to the library for workforce-development activities. Because when newspapers were big, [and] certain types of career books and self-help books were more in demand, people came to the library and checked those out.

That changed in the sense of the platforms. More people are dealing with digital platforms. And what that allows one to do is to job hunt more independently. But that only works if you have digital literacy.

People were always coming in to look up different types of items, and there might have been some unique programming now and then by having the health and human services entity come in and give a talk. But you did not have — unless you were in a very urbanized library — social services actually in the library or coming in more frequently.

That is seen as a shift. There are those who believe the library is losing some of its craft and luster, because it's becoming everything to all people. And then there are those who are saying, "No, we're just really reformatting what we do, and it's better to work with partners."

I see it all as information. It is seeing a need. We're going to meet you where you're at.

SD: There is also increased discussion about librarians being on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. What's your take on this issue, and what role do you think librarians should play?

JB: We stand on Gov. Phil Scott's opioid coordination council. We thought our biggest contribution was to help our libraries in a variety of ways to learn about the impact of this crisis and then what we could do.

What is it that you're able to do if your community is hard hit? Do you want to talk about prevention? Do you want to talk about healing? Do you want to talk about life-saving measures? Do you want to talk about security? All of those things are swirling around all at the same time.

What that's meant is, for example, Fletcher Free Library [in Burlington] started locking their bathrooms. Not many libraries did that until that time.

Some libraries now have AA meetings. Some have found that other types of groups feel comfortable coming to the library and can request a meeting room. It might be one of the few places people can gather.

We also did [the narcotic overdose treatment] Narcan training for lots of our libraries. And a few of them — for example, the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury — decided, with board approval and community input, to say that Narcan should be at the library.

To me, that's a good thing. I don't think anybody would say they shouldn't talk about it. And that's a discussion that a lot of libraries and boards then took on.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Balancing the Books | State librarian Jason Broughton plans for the future"