BY STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON—The libraries of both Brandon and Pittsford occupy historical buildings in the centers of their respective towns. Shelves of books, magazines, and DVDs beckon, promising entertainment and knowledge to all who enter. But the success of a small-town library depends not on its collection but on its staff, and both the Brandon Free Public Library (BFPL) and Pittsford’s Maclure Library are lucky to have dynamic, engaged directors who see their mission as far more than checking out books.
The Reporter sat down with Molly Kennedy (MK) and Shelly Williams (SW), directors of the BFPL and Maclure, respectively, for a conversation about their experiences running institutions that are in many ways at the hearts of their communities.
What is your background? How did you get started as a librarian?
SW: I’m originally from New Jersey. I worked in retail for 20 years, for a grocery store, before moving to Vermont. I didn’t go to school for library science but when I started working part-time at Maclure, I got my Vermont Certificate of Public Librarianship. In a small town, what’s more important than having the right degree is knowing how people fit into the community. We had a girl with a Master’s of Library Science and she never really clicked. In Vermont, it would be more useful to have a degree in sociology. When our previous director left the position, I applied for and got the job. Suddenly I was the full-time director.
MK: I grew up in Brandon. I volunteered at BFPL when I was a teenager. I went away to college. I was a visual communications major. But when I came back, I also got my Certificate of Librarianship, like Shelly. It’s less about how to organize books than how to run the small business of a library, because that’s what it really is: there’s a lot of admin and paperwork. But the training doesn’t prepare you for the social-work aspect. I worked here part-time for a while—I like to say my two younger boys grew up behind the desk—and when the director retired, I applied for and got the job. Shelly and I came into our positions around the same time. We kind of grew up together as librarians.
What drew you to libraries? Why are they special to you?
MK: I always pretended I was a librarian when I was a kid. I used to stamp dates in my own books and pretend I was checking them out. I love books, I love reading, but libraries are really about the people and the community.
SW: I was very interested in genealogy and spent a lot of time in libraries. But the libraries in New Jersey are very different. Vermont is the most unique library system in the country. Each library is a kingdom. It’s sacred to its community. People are very protective of their local libraries here.
What are some of the benefits of running a small-town library?
SW: No one is anonymous. People share their lives with us. Vermonters can be a bit tough on the outside but they’re the nicest, most caring people. The library is the community’s cohesive element.
MK: The relationships. Definitely. You get to know your people. You know what they’re going through. You know if they need something extra. You watch their kids grow up. They belong to us. They become family.
BFPL doesn’t issue library cards. Why not?
MK: We trust people. We know everyone. The only books that consistently disappear are the ones on witchcraft and numerology. If someone checks those out, it’s pretty certain we’re never getting them back.
Have you noticed a change in the role of local libraries over your career?
MK: We get asked for a lot of tech help now. People come in just to use the internet or even to ask for help with their phone.
SW: Yes, absolutely tech. One of my people was coming in and playing solitaire on his phone and I noticed he was using a magnifying glass…turns out he had minimized the screen and couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I helped him get it back to normal.
MK: BFLP has a 3-D printer. People have to send us their design files and we’ll print them out for them. This is a service that didn’t even exist just a few years ago.
Have you noticed a change in readers’ tastes over the years?
SW: Not really. People always love crime novels and thrillers. Some of these books are pretty quick reads, so folks will read a dozen in a week and come back for more.
MK: No. New York Times bestsellers and historical fiction, especially WWII, are always the most popular books at BFPL. For nonfiction, it’s mostly books about nature. Those books are bit harder to digest, so people tend to read them more slowly.
We’re seeing school boards around the country push to remove certain books from school libraries. How does that make you feel?
MK: Exasperated. It’s not ethical.
SW: I’m glad we’re not a municipal library. We have an independent board of directors and I feel like they back me. They block a lot of that sort of pressure.
MK: My board would absolutely back me as well.
What are some of your favorite classic books?
MK: Moby Dick. I love that book. I also love Sylvia Plath.
SW: The Wild. White Fang by Jack London.
What are some of your favorite recent books?
SW: Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. It’s the only book that our book club has unanimously enjoyed.
MK: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
What do you recommend to someone who wants to become a librarian?
MK: Volunteer! Find out if it’s really for you.
SW: Yes, volunteer. Get a feel for it. We have kids from Otter Valley come in. We’ll figure out what they can do in the library that fits their personalities. Some kids love to arrange the books. Some kids love to be at the desk.