This article first appeared in the January 19th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Gwen Stanley
Talk to Jennifer Belton, the newly-minted Director of Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock, about the possibilities that dwell within the walls of the stately old building on the green, and watch her eyes light up; her passion is clear.
“The library needs to be about service and community,” she said.
For Belton, that’s a two-way street.
“People here are well-traveled, well-educated. We can ask them to bring information to us, instead of just the other way around,” she said. She emphasizes that the library and the community have the opportunity to serve each other in a way that’s mutually beneficial.
After an extensive nationwide search for someone to take the helm of NWLP – the former head librarian Debra Spackman had been in the position as interim for years and wanted very much to concentrate on her speciality, technology within the library – the NWPL search committee hit on Belton who, as it turned out, already lived in town.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled with Jennifer,” said Jack McGuire, chair of the library’s Board of Trustees.
And it’s clear that Belton herself is thrilled, ready to bring about some changes that NWPL has been hoping for abut just hasn’t had the manpower to accomplish yet.
Belton graciously notes that the staff she has joined make it easy for her to see their joint vision within reach.
“This library staff is so profoundly dedicated and energetic,” Belton said. “Really, I’m just planning to take their ideas to fruition.”
Belton brings decades of experience and time at the Washington Post, where she was hired by none other than Ben Bradlee, who she describes as “a very passionate, enthusiastic man. Everyone believed that Ben already knew the whole story as they wrote it. He was that inspirational.”
At the Post, Belton took it upon herself to organize the newsroom’s morgue, a repository of stories that was in a bit of a mess at the time. She developed an archiving system called “Post-Haste” which could be used by the reporters and editors to quickly access information from a given issue of the Post. She has witnessed, in the last few decades, a rapidly-widening path of technology to access information and places NWPL firmly on that path.
“The Internet is changing our lives dramatically,” she said, motioning to her own iPad, “and we need to be the place where people go to learn how to access that.”
With Vermont’s network of social services becoming more and more technology-minded, she noted, it’s crucial that the library be prepared to help patrons access the sites and fill out the forms required for benefits and services.
Currently there is a fee for residents of outlying towns to take out items from NWLP, but Belton is hoping to change that.
“We will be talking to towns to figure out how we can serve residents here,” she said.
Technology figures large in Belton’s vision for the future of the library.
“Today a town library needs to reflect on and use all the social networking venues – apps, blogs, and so on.”
“(NWPL) is not a museum of books, but a thriving information center designed to promote discovery, curiosity, learning and to provide intellectual enrichment for the entire community,” Belton said. “How can we help the non-profits? How can we help the local businesses?”
“A lot of the programming here is initiated by the Learning Lab,” she said, referring to the classes that touch on sometimes-esoteric, sometimes-practical subjects using a diverse bunch of teachers from the area. “We need to capitalize on that, it’s something we already have that is well done.”
Instead of just people coming to the library, the library will be coming to them, in several different ways. In February, patrons will be able to download e-books from the library straight to their Kindle, Nook or iPad. Other possibilities in work include videoconferences on the mezzanine to bring in speakers and classes from universities world-wide, extended hours in the evenings, and, with the upcoming second phase of Wireless Woodstock, a reworked web site for the library that Belton images as a a portal for information.
Her vision for the library, she says, is based on the idea of democratic access to information and technology. Ideally, Belton said, the typical Woodstock resident would “wake up, put on their slippers, and pull up the Norman Williams Public Library web site. What’s going on today, what’s on the community blog, we want to make the library site the home page for people.”
A Woodstock resident only since last year, Belton admits that there are some aspects of working at a smaller library that may take getting used to.
“Being a steward for the building – that’s very different. In DC we had someone to help if the heat went out, if there was something going on with the building.” But, she says, she is looking forward to playing a more-hands on role in that regard; after all, she and her husband chose Woodstock to relocate to because of the tight-knit small town feel she sensed.
With her husband Hugh, a professional woodworker, Belton sketched out an idea of places the couple were considering and penciled out their top priorities in choosing a new place: plenty of outdoor activities, a sense of community, and at the top of the list, a incredible library. Some towns, Belton said, had several qualities they wanted, but no town but Woodstock hit every single one.
“I remember exactly the day – it was December 13, 2010, Wassail weekend. We walked into the library and I stood right there, looking up at the mezzanine. And there was Peter Rousmainere, reading from ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales.’ It was perfect, and I thought, ‘this is it, exactly.’”
A reception for Belton at the Norman Williams Public Library is planned for February 1 from 5 pm until 6:30 p.m. and residents are encouraged to welcome her in her new position.