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Jim Kenyon: Plainfield’s Library Saga Continues

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Published: 1/15/2017 12:18:45 AM
Modified: 1/15/2017 12:18:59 AM

I’ll say this for Plainfield’s library trustees: They sure know how to grab headlines. They could write a book on how to drive a wedge in a community while handling something as benign as overseeing a couple of small-town libraries.

Two years ago, Suzanne Spencer, who chaired the trustees at the time, had the chutzpah to call Plainfield police during a board meeting to have a resident removed for talking out of order. Spencer apparently took exception to the resident’s claim that she was “trying to change the minutes” of an earlier board meeting. Fortunately, the officer who responded had the good sense to recognize that hauling away a 57-year-old woman in handcuffs from a library meeting probably wouldn’t play well on YouTube. No charges were filed.

Emily Sands has replaced Spencer, who remains on the five-member board, as chairwoman. But the board continues to take a page from Donald Trump’s playbook that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Why else would it vote unanimously to give the heave-ho to a 70-something librarian with 40 years of service to the town?

At a Dec. 2 meeting, trustees informed associate library director Nancy Norwalk that her position was being eliminated at the end of 2016.

I think it’s fair to say that Norwalk is a Plainfield icon. A former recipient of the town’s citizen of the year award, Norwalk spearheaded the effort to expand and renovate the Philip Read Memorial Library — the crown jewel of Plainfield Village.

In early November, the library held a grand opening to celebrate completion of the $1.5 million project, which includes a special collections room. That would be, according to a plaque on the wall, the Nancy Norwalk Special Collections Room. “A tireless champion of preserving and sharing the legacy of Plainfield’s rich history,” reads the plaque.

“The trustees let us have our little surprise for Nancy, then they slammed the hammer on her,” said Ruth Stalker, who serves on the board of Friends of Philip Read Memorial Library.

Although Norwalk’s ouster appeared sudden, it’s actually been in the works for a while. Years, in fact.

Here’s a brief history: The town’s main villages — Meriden and Plainfield (sorry, no slight meant to East Plainfield) — each has a library that historically was governed by its own three-member board. But in 2011, at the Selectboard’s recommendation, Town Meeting voters approved switching to a single five-member board, elected by townspeople, that would be in charge of both libraries.

The unification, as the Selectboard called it, proved to be anything but that. In part because residents of the two villages, situated on opposite ends of town, don’t always mesh.

Meriden is seen as the more well-to-do part of town. Plainfield Village, while having its share of wealthy residents, is perceived as more working-class.

But when it comes to libraries, Plainfield Village wins hands down. Thanks largely to the fundraising success of its “Friends” group, the century-old Philip Read Memorial Library now has a spacious, attractive interior with bright hardwood floors and matching custom-made book shelves. Meanwhile, Meriden Library, which was built in the 1960s, is not only cramped for space; it’s also not accessible to those with handicaps.

“Meriden has the elementary school, the police station and Town Hall,” Stalker said. “Everything is over there. All we’ve got is our library.”

As a teenager, Meg O’Neill volunteered at the library and came to regard Norwalk as a mentor. Now 40, O’Neill has a master’s degree in library science from UCLA and is the librarian at the Pingree School, a private high school in South Hamilton, Mass.

“I learned a lot from Nancy about collection development and how to choose books,” O’Neill told me. “She’s always been good about figuring out what the town needed and how to make it happen.”

But apparently Plainfield’s library trustees don’t hold Norwalk’s contributions to the community in such high regard. I wonder if it has something to do with a majority of the board living on the Meriden side of town. I wanted to talk with Sands, the board chairwoman, about what has been going on, but she politely declined to comment.

Andrea Keen, who lives in Meriden, told me that the trustees are supported by many townspeople, but they’re just not vocal about it. “There is a reason most folks in town voted for them,” Keen said.

Steve Halleran, who grew up in Plainfield Village, has served as town administrator for almost 28 years. He’s watched Norwalk “bump heads” with the trustees in recent years. “Everyone agrees that Nancy can be stubborn, but having her career end in a very negative way has made some people very mad,” he said. “This has been very divisive in the community. You can find fault on both sides.”

On Tuesday, at 7:15 p.m., the library trustees, at Norwalk’s request, will hold a public hearing at the elementary school to “reconsider library organizational decisions” made at its Dec. 2 board meeting.

Norwalk will be there with her attorney, Brad Wilder, who grew up in Plainfield. Both told me they wanted to wait until after the meeting to talk.

The town will also have its lawyer, Barry Schuster, of Lebanon, on hand. Last week, Schuster told me that the board and Norwalk had “reached a prior agreement that would end her employment on Dec. 31, 2016.” The Dec. 2 vote was a confirmation of that agreement, he said. Schuster said he’d have more to say about the matter at Tuesday’s meeting.

It could be a boisterous gathering. My hope is that the police won’t be summoned. My bigger hope is that the two sides will come up with a solution that accords a longtime community servant the respect and gratitude she deserves.

Valley News

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