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Jim Kenyon: A New Chapter in Plainfield

  • 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 permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

In 1984, the then-town librarians in Plainfield and Cornish came to a simple and somewhat informal agreement. Cornish residents could take out books and other materials from Plainfield’s two public libraries for free. In exchange, Plainfield residents had borrowing privileges at Cornish’s library.

From a geographical standpoint, it made sense. Some Cornish residents lived closer to the Meriden Library or the Philip Read Memorial Library on Route 12A in Plainfield Village than to their own library. The same held true for Plainfield residents near the Cornish town line.

Besides, sharing community resources just seemed like a neighborly thing to do.

After 34 years, however, Plainfield’s library trustees — with the support of the town’s Selectboard — have ended the arrangement. On July 1, Plainfield began charging Cornish residents an annual fee of $40 per household to borrow materials from its two libraries. Cornish, meanwhile, continues to abide by the decades-old agreement.

“It’s important to us that people have free access to library resources,” Cornish library trustee Kate Freeland said.

Over the years, Cornish residents have no doubt gotten the better of the deal. Philip Read, which underwent a $1.5 million expansion and renovation in recent times, is the Four Seasons of small-town libraries.

Cornish’s George H. Stowell Free Library, built in the early 1900s, has a relatively small collection and is not handicapped accessible. (Meriden Library is cramped and also lacks handicapped access, but a plan is in the works to raze the building and replace it with a one-story structure.) Plainfield’s two libraries are open a combined 48 hours a week compared with Cornish’s eight hours.

While it doesn’t seem that many Plainfield residents were making the trip across town lines to check out a book or two, an estimated 100 to 200 Cornish residents were taking advantage of their Plainfield privileges.

And that’s the real rub.

“This is a Cornish issue, not a Plainfield issue,” Plainfield library trustee Nancy Liston told me. “Cornish is not supporting their library to the level that residents want.”

Last October, Plainfield library trustees asked Cornish to start paying $1,000 a year to maintain its residents’ borrowing rights. In January, Cornish’s three trustees unanimously rejected the request, pointing out that $1,000 amounted to nearly 6 percent of the town’s library budget. “For whatever reason, our library has always been run on a shoestring,” said trustee Freeland, who has lived in Cornish for more than 30 years.

On May 1, Plainfield sent a letter to Cornish residents informing them of a change in its “use of library” policy. Mary King, Plainfield’s library director, told me Monday that she hadn’t counted up the number of Cornish residents who have paid the borrowing fee.

The decision to charge their neighbors to the south didn’t sit well with a small group of Plainfield residents. They argued that Cornish residents have long served as library volunteers and written checks to support building improvements.

Trustees didn’t flinch. (Remember, this is the governing board that in 2015 called Plainfield police during a public meeting to have a resident removed for talking out of order.)

Liston, the Plainfield trustee, stressed that “we’re not the first town to do this.” (She was talking about the nonresident fee, not calling police to have a resident tossed.)

True, Hanover charges $140 a year per nonresident household. In Lebanon, it’s $75. But in a quick internet search, I found plenty of Upper Valley towns that don’t charge.

Hartland issues library cards to residents of “surrounding communities.” Thetford does as well. On the Vermont side of the Upper Valley, nine communities, including Hartford and Norwich, have joined the “One Card” program, which allows patrons to borrow materials from any participating libraries. How neighborly.

But I don’t see Plainfield joining a similar program anytime soon. “Our ultimate responsibility is to Plainfield taxpayers,” said Town Administrator Steve Halleran. “They’re the ones paying the bills.”

Plainfield is certainly within its rights to charge nonresidents whatever it wants. But do town leaders have to be so sanctimonious about it?

When I stopped by the town offices, Halleran handed me Selectboard member Ron Eberhardt’s recent letter in support of the five library trustees who are apparently feeling some heat for being, well, unneighborly.

“It is my strongly held opinion that community should not end at town lines, or, for that matter, state or national boundaries,” Eberhardt wrote. “That said, town governments make decisions and policy as to how to choose to allocate resources.”

He pointed out that Plainfield spends 10 times more on library services than Cornish. Plainfield, which has roughly 2,400 residents, allocates nearly $150,000 a year in taxpayers’ money to its libraries. Cornish, which has 1,600 residents, spends about $14,000.

Good for Plainfield. But I’m not sure that casting Cornish residents as a bunch of library freeloaders accomplishes much.

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, about a quarter of U.S. adults say they haven’t read a book, in whole, or in part, during the previous year.

Requiring folks who happen to live on the other side of the town line to start paying an annual fee to borrow a book from a public library won’t help change that.

 Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.