An Open Letter to the Vermont General Assembly Chairs on Education, Institutions and Appropriations
by Joe Benning, former State Senator from the Caledonia District
Frankly, as a former legislator, I’ve been reluctant to become involved in your work. However, I feel an urgent need to contact you to add my name to the growing list of those extremely upset over the decision to close physical libraries in the new State University system. As chairs of your respective, pertinent committees, I believe you have the power to reverse this decision.
One of my first jobs in high school was to work stocking shelves in my local town’s public library. From that time forward I have appreciated how integral a part libraries are to a sense of community, no matter where or under whose authority they may exist. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate for any of you what that means.
Parochially I join those already speaking out loudly against the loss of a physical library in a three county area that desperately needs to retain such facilities. In 1975 I entered what was then called “Lyndon State College,” formerly the state’s first teacher’s college. It became immediately apparent that the college library was not just a wonderful asset for the college community, it was a vital component in the town/gown relationship. Students “from away” frequented a library often populated with citizens from around the Northeast Kingdom (and beyond) for research, forums, classes and the like.
Additionally, our library in Lyndon became a repository for Vermontiana, especially under the guidance of my political mentor, the late State Senator, Professor Emeritus and Vermont historian Graham Stiles Newell. The collection of books he amassed, which still exists today in the library room dedicated to his memory, is quite sizable for such a small college. My greatest alarm in this controversy is the real possibility that valuable collection is somehow lost to public access and/or dispersed.
I read some time ago that this decision is motivated, at least in part, to an alleged downturn in circulation numbers. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it is not relevant to the discussion. In my four years at the college and going on nearly 50 as a resident of Lyndon, I cannot recall ever taking out a book from our library. On the other hand, I spent countless hours in that library as a student, probably more so after graduating, to expand my education and community fellowship.
I also read that college officials believe digital, online volumes can meet the students’ needs adequately. With the introduction of personal computers during my lifetime, I’m cognizant of the promise technology brings. But now able to compare both the before and after, my generation can attest that no technology can replace the quiet solitude and person-to-person educational learning experiences found in a library environment. As legislators during COVID-19’s remote meetings, you know full well that Zoom meetings did not, and cannot, compare to in-person conversations. Digital technology is meant to compliment, not replace, our person-to-person interactions.
The final argument I’ve heard is that this move will save money. Alumni and current students strenuously disagree. Do the current trustees seriously believe elimination of the central gathering place so critical to student campus life will attract more students? Have they even considered the possibility that current students, disgusted by this move, will decide to go elsewhere? I was the first student elected to the Vermont State College Board of Trustees back in 1978. That board and the current one have always had the same problem: lack of money from a legislature statutorily required to foot the bill. But libraries have never existed to make a profit. Allowing the current board to eviscerate the soul of these institutions is simply intolerable.
I’ll close with a quotation from a leather book mark I received years ago when I ordered the six volume treatise on Thomas Jefferson by Dumas Malone. It should serve as a rallying cry for this discussion. Said Jefferson: “I cannot live without books.”
Thanks for listening.