Bixby Memorial Free Library | Vergennes, Vermont
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
The goal: explore the libraries of Vermont. Come along! There's so much to learn and the first stop is the Bixby.
Tucked into Vergennes, at last census under 3,000 souls, this gem is an architectural pantheon. Considered Greek Revival, the Bixby is Neoclassical in style. (Pinkies up when you read that.) Bixby was designed by the renowned New York firm Trowbridge & Livingston, who went on to design major New York City landmarks.
Passing amongst the portico's imposing columns, it's funny to think that this monument of a library was once used as the only public restroom for women in Vergennes.
Library Director Masha Harris explains the decorations strung around the impressive stained glass dome, remnants of a fundraising gala which raised a large portion of Bixby's funding - roughly 30 percent of its budget. Even though the Bixby is supported by its hometown of Vergennes and the 4 surrounding towns of Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, and Waltham, as an incorporated library (more on that later) it must generate a large chunk of its own funding.
Maddy Willwerth, PR, Circulation & Organizational Coordinator, explains the Circulation Desk (shown above) is both original to the Bixby and still in active use. On the desk itself are a couple of vital tidbits.
In the digital age, Bixby still stamps due dates inside books which, Harris says, some patrons actively encourage or demand.
But it’s the "Conscience Box" which is most striking. Willwerth speaks to how this fits the library and the community. The debate on whether to go fine-free or not is a hot topic in the library world, with a few singular libraries breaking ground in this endeavor. As libraries often serve the most vulnerable populations, fees can be an economic barrier to universal access. There are no late fines at the Bixby, so if you are able (and feeling guilty) you can put a little something in the box to clear your conscience.
Expanding on library services, Harris and Willwerth give insight on the employees and volunteers wearing many hats while keeping the Bixby a vital community touchpoint. It's not unusual for libraries to be leaned on for myriad services.
Social isolation is a big issue in Vermont – our prized ruralness a hurdle for our most vulnerable populations. Libraries are a nexus point for people leaning on this space for daily activity. Most importantly, they're one of the last few free public spaces for access and information.
Flop on a couch. Crack open a book. Stare up at the lamps. Bixby is meant to be seen and enjoyed.
Note a young trumpeter pictured above, donated in 1940 by a Mrs. Joseph A. Nesmith. This was sculpted by Margaret Foley, a renowned Vermont artist. Her life story is absolutely fascinating and worth a ramble through the internet.
Wander out those large glass doors onto the veranda: rocking chairs overlook the lawn with the sound of the Otter Creek rushing over the Vergennes Falls less than a block away.
The youth section is replete with fishy and fantastical residents. For several weeks during the summer months free lunches are offered to young patrons: toddlers to age 17.
Aside from books, the Bixby offers patrons the opportunity to explore their world through passes to over 10 different parks and museums or by checking out laptops for use. And an active programming guide offers events for children, teens, and adults. Examples of the Summer 2019 programs include:
Dungeons & Dragons: An Introduction
Free Movie Showings
802 Reptiles Educational Show - complete with scaley guests
CAT CAFE! (Yeah, we screamed the last part too when we wrote it.)
The Bixby isn't just pretty architecture: it’s a true working library with uniquely interesting events and items supporting its varied community.
Behind the circulation desk are the original wrought iron bookstacks of the library. These don't just hold books - they hold up the building! The stacks are built to structurally cradle the library, rising from the Bixby's basement to its mezzanine.
Between the stacks rests glass panel flooring, shockingly original to the library too (which Harris assures is quite safe).
In Bixby's earlier days, librarians would run amongst these stacks to retrieve a patron's requested book, instead of the free roaming that's allowed today.
And at the back of the stacks one comes across another original treat: the library dumbwaiter!
Harris demonstrates that it's still in working order, admitting several older patrons have regaled her with stories of them sneaking past the librarians to snag illicit rides.
How and why does Bixby exist? A literary palace in a tiny Vermont town?
The funding for Bixby came as a shock. When local businessman William Gove Bixby died, he willed a sizable inheritance specifically for a library to be built, ultimately opening in 1912. But where did he get a small fortune?
Well, he was a businessman, but he also had a very wealthy sister who passed away and willed him a sizable chunk of change (she had married a very successful Chicago hotelier).
In perhaps the only case of trickle-down economics working, this fortune scythed its way down through relatives and tragedy, ultimately manifesting as the Bixby Memorial Free Library.
And it's a stunning place - something one feels belongs in New York or Washington: stained glass and winding staircases, feeling almost out of place for Vermont's smallest city. Bixby Library has a more extensive record of its namesake for perusal here.
Upstairs at the Bixby.
But before the Bixby...
The Bixby itself is only the most recent incarnation of a library in Vergennes. Thanks to information from the Bixby, the Vergennes Historical Society, and Patricia Belding’s "Where The Books Are," we're able to follow the breadcrumb trail of libraries.
The Social Library was formed in 1809, with the Agricultural Library and the Roberts Lending Library following. Later, several young women would band together, founding the Vergennes Circulating Library. Next in the evolutionary cycle came City Library, which was also known as the Susan Strong Library.
A bank now, a library before. The location of the former City Library is just up the street in a People's United Bank. Prior to 1912 that library sat in the rear of what was then the National Bank of Vergennes.
Images of historical Vergennes (scanned from original 35mm slides kept at the library) can easily be accessed on the Bixby's website here.
Find the Bixby on facebook here - you'll get fascinating updates about library activities and perhaps a visiting neighborly peacock.
Incorporated vs Municipal - huh?
Bixby is considered an incorporated library since it was created by a private act of charity and not a municipal vote. Bixby does receive some municipal money from those 5 towns it supports but it also has to generate a chunk of money to survive on its own.
Libraries suffer from the assumption that they're a universal constant: always there and ever funded from, well, the public purse. There's quite a range and difference in how libraries get their funding. Remember that gala mentioned earlier? For libraries such as the Bixby, fundraisers are absolutely vital.
Consider a tax deductible donation, or check out Friends of the Bixby Memorial Free Library.
If you've lasted this long, you're either great at scrolling or you've done some reading. Our exploration of Bixby is not exhaustive by any means. There's much more to see and explore so we encourage you to visit! We'd like thank the Bixby and the many unnamed helping hands involved - employees, volunteers, the special people who help keep this bastion alive.
And we thank you for reading along in our quest: to venture into every library in the state of Vermont.
"...New York City landmarks." - Where The Books Are by Patricia W. Belding, Pg. 9
"...restroom for women in Vergennes." - Quoting Director Harris, with additional reading here specifically regarding Bixby's bathrooms
"...Margaret Foley, a renowned Vermont artist." - Where The Books Are by Patricia W. Belding, Pg. 10