St. Johnsbury Athenaeum Trustees Lay Off Entire Staff, Invites Them to Re-Apply for Fewer Jobs

01/11/13 7:34AM By Charlotte Albright
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VPR/Charlotte Albright
Patrons browse at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum. The library trustees have laid off staff in an effort to cut costs and change the way services are provided.

Librarians across Vermont are dismayed by news that the entire library staff at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum has been laid off. 

The library is strapped for cash and its Board of Directors wants to restructure services.  The staff may re-apply for a reduced number of positions.

Another job is being expanded, though, and a new job is being created. 

None of the St. Johnsbury library staff wants to talk on the record about the layoff notices they got at a surprise meeting before Christmas. They say they are afraid speaking out will jeopardize their severance pay. But library patrons have no reluctance.

Edward Kadunc is an art teacher who borrows art books and exhibits his work in the building.

"Well, I mean things probably need to be adjusted, but I think this is an incredibly drastic move," he said as he was using his laptop at the library recently.

The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is an unusual institution, and that's part of the reason changes are afoot.

The stately red brick building, which serves as a monument on the hill above downtown, is part library and part art museum, a gift to the town by the Fairbanks family in 1871.

The walls at the front of the building are lined with the books and computers you'd expect at any library. But a spacious gallery at the back is filled with a priceless collection of paintings, including the imposing 10-foot-by-15-foot "Domes of Yosemite" by Albert Bierstadt.

The Athenaeum completed a renovation of the gallery about ten years ago, which cost over a million dollars, and recently spent another 750 thousand restoring a skylight. And now the library finds itself in a dire financial situation. Athenaeum Board Chairman Bill Marshall says that has to be addressed.

"We have a significant deficit and we must gain control of that and we must not rely on our endowment, and that's what we've been doing,"Marshall said.

Marshall has sent a letter to patrons, staff, and donors, explaining the Board's move.

Marshall will not discuss individual personnel issues but he says the deficit is not the only reason behind the proposed changes. The trustees laid off all eight library staff members. They may re-apply for four positions. 

Marshall says the consolidation will free up cash for a new collections curator and a full-time development director. Both will apply for grants.

But Sherry Tolle, who directs the Barnet Library, thinks trustees should take more responsibility for fundraising. She doubts the plan to hire more administrators will save money, and she believes existing staff are excellent.

"So I was pretty devastated when I heard. A lot of those people are my friends as well as colleagues," Tolle said.

Board Chairman Marshall says he knows this is a stressful time for the staff.

"But our sense was that we want to create this team of four people who will work together to make this even a more vital and responsive library service for today's people," he added.

Amber Billey is president of the Vermont Library Association and a cataloguer of digital media at the University of Vermont's Bailey/Howe Library. She believes the trustees, however well-intentioned, have made a big mistake.

"Lots of  libraries have gone through tough times but none have ever laid off their entire staff," she remarked.

Billey has helped form a new advocacy group called Rural Librarians Unite. This Saturday at noon, members plan to show support for the Athenaeum by encircling the building, and giving it a literal hug.

Board Chairman Marshall says he is likely to  show up, but believes the demonstration is unlikely to persuade the board to change its plan.

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