Renowned Civil War historian Shelby Foote once quipped, “A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” One could say a similar thing about a town and its library. My morning routine often takes me past the library, and this column came to me several weeks ago as I brought my household compost to the Project COW compost bin at the WSWM recycling facility on Ferry Road.
The Brooks Memorial Library is an essential conduit for information and vital services to all sectors of our town’s population. But more than that, it’s an intellectual, emotional and psychological haven for many. Like the inscription over the door at the ancient library at Thebes, it is the “medicine of the soul.” Without fail, a crowd gathers in front of the library waiting for it to open each day. They are college students doing research, moms with their children, people using the computers for job searches, and elderly folks keeping up with the news in five different papers. I see the line form each morning and am reminded of something Lady Bird Johnson once said. “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only requirement is interest.”
A majority of our town’s residents use the services of the library. According to statistics recorded at the Vermont Department of Libraries, over 62% of our community is registered as borrowers, compared with just over 33% in Burlington. Brooks Memorial welcomed over 10,000 people to its special library programs last year, and it is the busiest public interlibrary loan location in the state. Per year, the staff estimates that up to 7,500 patrons receive training on the library PCs, and 700 people use electronic resources at the library each week. People rely on the library—not merely for edification but for survival in an increasingly competitive world. (In the interest of full disclosure, my spouse is on the board of trustees of the library. But my love affair with our library pre-dates my marriage and my children.)
These statistics prove what we all know: our library is a cherished institution in our community. But its critical services come with a price. Select board member Christopher Chapman has recently made several impassioned pleas about the rising costs of tipping fees and our need to reduce waste. His public pitches have illuminated an irony: we appear to be more committed to throwing stuff out than to preserving vital services in our town. We paid trash haulers nearly $300,000 in tipping fees last year, and those costs are expected to rise significantly in the future. In order to have money for important services, we have to start taking advantage of programs like Project COW.
I am not a star gardener who understands all the ins and out of composting. All my pumpkin plants died last year, and I’ve not had a decent tomato year since, well—honestly—ever. But I do understand one basic thing about compost: our family produces waste that should not go in the trash. Food scraps, fat and bones from Saturday night’s roast chicken, and the moldering refuse from the far corners of the ‘fridge need to be composted. All this stuff breaks down naturally. There’s no need to put it in the landfill, and it is very expensive to throw out. We collect ours and dump it either in the bin on Fairgrounds Road or Old Ferry Road. And soon the town will be piloting curbside compost pickup for 150 households.
The 5-gallon bucket that we use for our Project COW compost originally held joint compound, but you can buy a new bucket and lid at the hardware store for just a few bucks. Line it with either newspaper or paper bags. That way the waste slides out easily, and you can toss the sodden paper in the bin. Although it’s true that homeowners tend to have more room than renters, most folks can find room enough under the kitchen sink for one bucket.
Like every town in this country, Brattleboro has limited funds. This means we must make better choices about how we spend our money—choices that serve our values. I value our library tremendously and would like to see its full Thursday and Saturday hours restored. You may be eyeing a new road grader or you might like to spend money on safer crosswalks. We don’t need to agree now on how “found” money would be better spent. The first step—before we get to that marvelous democratic tradition of advocating, cajoling and convincing—is to get the money back.
We Vermonters have shown this past year that we are very good at the grand gesture. We emptied our pockets for those left homeless from the Brooks House fire and for the thousands impacted by Tropical Storm Irene. Project COW composting is decidedly not sexy and you’ll never see a special license plate in its honor. But it goes to the heart of who we are as Vermonters: community-minded and irrepressibly thrifty.
And if you have trouble locating Project COW compost information, you can always go to the library for help.