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Vermont's state librarian discusses new report on status of libraries, from funding to technology

 entrance to Fletcher Free Library
Fletcher Free Library
The Fletcher Free Library in Burlington.

Libraries provide more resources for communities than just books — free WiFi, computer access, COVID-19 tests and a warm place to be are just some of the roles libraries play in communities across the country.

Vermont recently published a more than 200-page report documenting the state of libraries. The report was put together over two years, and looked into every area of library service. Some big findings in the new report look at pay and the way technology is changing libraries.

Funding and commensurate pay

Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director of Vermont Humanities, was a part of the working group created by the Vermont Legislature to put the report together. He said the findings of the report mirror the role libraries play in the community, like accessing health care or finding full time work.

"The stories of libraries in Vermont are really the stories of Vermont communities at large," he said. "All of those stories were really similar to the policy discussions we're having writ large in Vermont. And I thought that was very moving, to see that through the library lens. I will also say, of course, there were some special things as well about libraries that are very unique, and that really is about how we build community in Vermont and how we access information."

Catherine Delneo, the Vermont state librarian and commissioner of libraries, said the topic of pay was important because the pay may not be commensurate with the difficulty of the role.

"It really seems to mirror what we're seeing in general information that in important jobs, sometimes folks are struggling to make ends meet," Commissioner Delneo said. "But really, for me, when we look at the chapter about the library structures and organizations, it really comes back to a funding issue."

The scope of librarians' roles have changed over time. Librarians are often expected to act as social workers in addition to fulfilling their daily library services.

The wonderful thing about a public library is that it's free, it's open to everyone, and it's welcoming. And we want that place to be safe as well. And so I think staff are really doing their best to deescalate and to call in help when they need it. But it can be pretty challenging for folks.
Catherine Delneo, the Vermont State Librarian and Commissioner of Libraries

Kaufman Ilstrup said librarians are often required to have a masters-level education, which brings with it other concerns like educational debt.

"What librarians are expected to do for the compensation on offer is really remarkable, right?" Kaufman Ilstrup said. "So when we're facing a situation where librarians can't make ends meet, we're not funding the libraries at the level they need to be funded, we really have to look at that broad picture of what we're expecting from our library staff—and whether or not that is actually sustainable over the long haul."

Commissioner Delneo also mentioned issues in staff retention due to "high adrenaline" situations that can arise in libraries, which make it hard to show up at your best, on top of pay and funding concerns.

Libraries, in some communities, are the only public warm, safe places for vulnerable community members.

"The wonderful thing about a public library is that it's free, it's open to everyone, and it's welcoming. And we want that place to be safe as well. And so I think staff are really doing their best to deescalate and to call in help when they need it. But it can be pretty challenging for folks," Commissioner Delneo said.

Mercedes Rancaño Otero
Vermont released a 200-page report on the state of libraries that looks at issues like technology and funding.

Technology and other changing concerns

Libraries provide digital resources, like e-books or database access, to communities in addition to physical books. And while the digital resources and technology changes can provide a lot of good to library-goers, it is also impacting library operations.

"It does really concern us that with the proliferation of formats, the cost of maintaining your print collection hasn't changed. And now, many Vermonters are also looking to read e-books and to use online resources. So that stretches the local library budgets," Commissioner Delneo said.

E-books often cost significantly more than a physical book, and are bought by libraries on a limited basis. This means that an e-book is purchased at a higher cost, but may only be able to be owned by the library for a certain amount of time or amount of uses. Commissioner Delneo says this limitation often creates a shorter shelf-life for e-books than physical books, at this higher cost.

But, digital resources are a benefit to issues like shelf space in physical library spaces and conversations regarding accessibility.

"I'm also a supporter of public libraries around the state developing systems to provide e-books and audio books and other kinds of digital resources to their communities as well, purely on an accessibility standpoint. There are lots of Vermonters who can't read a printed book, but can listen to an audio book, and being able to have those robust collections is important," Kaufman Ilstrup said.

Additionally, libraries are navigating an increase nationwide of book bans and censorship.

There are lots of Vermonters who can't read a printed book, but can listen to an audio book, and being able to have those robust collections is important.
Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director of Vermont Humanities

While Vermont hasn't seen a significant uptick in book censorship, the report addresses a tangential problem called "soft censorship."

Kaufman Ilstrup said soft censorship is something libraries are tackling. It's a situation where even if a book hasn't been censored, libraries are becoming hesitant to promote them for fear of a ban or other pushback. This disproportionally impacts BIPOC or LGBTQ+ literature.

"One of the theories that we always work on is this theory of windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors," Kaufman Ilstrup said. "Where you should be able to walk into a library or a school and see resources and books that reflect your experience, right, a mirror. You should be able to look through a window and see books and materials that express other people's experience, people that are different from you. And you should be able to walk through that sliding glass door and and experience what it might be like to be somebody else, to have empathy for other people's experience."

"And in this conversation about book bans in libraries, what we're really seeing is an effort to, to close those windows, close those sliding glass doors, cover those mirrors, and often make it harder for people to find materials that really reflect their own experience," Kaufman Ilstrup said.

In all, the state of library report covers a lot of ground that addresses the changing nature of libraries in communities. Both Commissioner Delneo and Kaufman Ilstrup, looking to the future, hope the report opens people up to conversations about libraries fit in with these larger conversations and are impacted by decision makers.

Broadcast at noon Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.