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Editorial: Gilmanton library story shouldn’t end

Last modified: 3/5/2015 12:29:27 AM
In 1833, the town of Peterborough, N.H., opened the nation’s first public library. In 2009, Gilmanton opened the most recent library built to serve a New Hampshire community. Before that, Gilmanton was one of just two towns in the state without a year-round, public library. It may reclaim that dubious distinction in less than two weeks if SB 2 voters fail to approve spending to keep the Gilmanton Year-Round Library open.

The $1.2 million library created in a historic, relocated bar was built with the best of intentions, donated funds and grants. In the years since, it has become the community’s living room, a place where residents in the town of roughly 3,800 can meet, greet, socialize, borrow and learn. But almost from the beginning, the library divided the town. Some residents insist that the library’s founders promised to operate it at no cost to taxpayers. Others say a self-supporting library was a lofty goal but never a promise.

In 2009, during the recession, the library’s board asked voters to contribute $75,000 toward the cost of running it and the answer was a resounding “no.” The opening of the completed library was delayed until an anonymous donor paid for its first-year operating costs. Since then, the board has had to appeal to the town for varying levels of support to keep the library open. Voters said no in 2013, and the votes in the years when funding was approved were close.

Next week, Gilmanton voters will decide whether to contribute $46,000 toward the library’s $70,500 budget or watch it close. They should vote “yes.” Supporting the library will cost the owners of a $200,000 house about $20 next year. That’s a very small price to pay for an institution that meets a host of community needs. It’s also far less than the beautiful, busy library adds to the value of every property in town. It makes the rural town a more welcoming, friendly and better place to live.

At this point, the tax-free promises allegedly made and past misunderstandings, if that’s what they were, are irrelevant.

As Brian Forst, chairman of Gilmanton’s budget committee and an opponent of public funding for the library, told Monitor reporter Megan Doyle, the library is “a beautiful facility. They’ve done wonderful things. . . . Let’s figure this out.”

Some residents balk at the idea of using public money to pay to operate a facility the town doesn’t own. Indeed, it may make sense, given assurance of annual taxpayer support, for the nonprofit’s board to donate the building to the town. But that’s a question for another day.

Libraries have become more, not less, important in the digital age. That’s particularly true in small, rural towns that have seen a loss of post offices, general stores and other places that help people connect with their neighbors.

A library provides internet access for those who can’t afford hefty bills for cable service. Gilmanton’s new library offers free family movie nights, children’s story hours, and a place for clubs and a yoga program to meet. It helps people find jobs and children do their homework. Libraries are also community meeting places and social centers. A community without a vibrant library feels hollow.

Shuttering Gilmanton’s library, a facility brought into being by generosity and sacrifice, would be a mistake and, in a small way, a tragedy.


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