Rutland Free Library has jail cells in the basement. This is one of the fun facts the library’s staff shares with visitors who stop in as part of the Passport to Vermont’s Libraries summer program.
After a one-year hiatus, the Vermont Library Association has revived the program and is challenging people to visit as many libraries as possible between June 1 and Sept. 1. The child, young adult and adult who manage to visit more of the state’s 183 public libraries than anyone else will each win a prize.
Jessamyn West, who created the passport program at the VLA, said it is designed to remind people that libraries are free and open to all. This mission is perhaps especially relevant in Vermont, which has more libraries per capita than any other state.
West wants everyone to feel comfortable at their library, and hopes the revamped program will increase participation. This is the first year that every library in the state is part of the passport contest whether they signed up or not — in the past it was an opt-in system. Many libraries have passports at the front desk, and the template is also available online.
Despite the new mandatory nature of the program, West said that libraries are free to participate how they choose.
“It’s mostly something that lets us share the joy of Vermont’s libraries,” she said. “A lot of people do it because it’s fun, it gives them something to do over the summer and it structures some of their travels.”
West enjoys when people discover their local library has features or programs they never knew about before.
“It’s like discovering something that was in your backyard this whole time and our program gave someone the nudge to find out about it,” she said.
The program also gives Vermonters a reason to visit new libraries.
Janet Clapp said visitors to the Rutland Free Library often comment on the size of the library when they get their passports stamped. Clapp is the adult services librarian at the Rutland library, which has given out over 30 passports so far this summer. Clapp said she cannot pick her favorite Vermont library.
“They’re all different,” she said. “Morristown has a working fireplace in the winter; Bennington has a cat.”
Discovering these quirks is part of why people participate in the program, according to Shelly Williams. Williams is director at the Maclure Library in Pittsford and she did the program a few years ago.
“Every single library has its own little quirks,” she said. “We have a safe that was put in here because town hall was here at one time. Then when town hall finally got built they couldn’t get it out so we still have it.”
Williams said Vermont’s small library have an intimate feel, which makes them sweet to visit. The Maclure Library staff has stamped about 20 passports so far this season, and Williams loves welcoming the additional visitors that the passports brings through.
Almy Landauer, director of the Waterbury Public Library, said she also meets new visitors each summer thanks to the program.
“Everybody seems to think it’s really fun. It’s kind of like the 251 Club but for library geeks,” she said, referring to the club that challenges Vermonters to visit all 251 towns in the state.
West said some of her personal favorite library experiences have occurred during spontaneous stops in new places, like when she stumbled across a sconce in the Chelsea Public Library that came to the United States on a Merci Train. The Merci Train cars were gifted to each state from France in 1949 as a thank you after World War II.
“Each state got a box car full of stuff and that stuff was distributed to people and organizations in the state,” she said. “I never would have learned about the Merci Trains if not for this sign in the Chelsea Public Library.”
Beyond the fun facts, West believes this program reinforces the importance of libraries as spaces of civic engagement.
“We have libraries in this country because we’re a democracy, and so you get to vote and make decisions that affect you directly,” she said. “In order to be able to do that, you need to be able to educate yourself.”
In an era where facts are often up for debate, West feels libraries have become even more important.
“Having a public space where you have a right to look up and know whatever you want, where you have a right to privacy, where you have a right to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, where you don’t have to subscribe to a certain faith tradition, especially if you’re a kid, that’s really important,” she said. “This program can make sure that, for people who need it, they know those resources are available for them.”