SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. — Theresa Manning, a Royalton Memorial Library trustee, stood in one of the unused rooms on the library’s ground floor, knee-deep in donated books.

“We have nowhere to put them!” she said, throwing up her hands in dismay before adding, “This is not what Evelyn Lovejoy would have wanted.”

The Royalton Memorial Library Association — spearheaded by Lovejoy, who was the first woman elected to public office in Royalton — will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its formation Thursday on the South Royalton Green, featuring a performance by the South Royalton Town Band and free birthday cake.

But even as the centennial offers the opportunity to reflect on the Royalton Memorial Library’s distinctive and unusually feminist past, the occasion also comes at a time of uncertainty as to the library’s future. It must either expand its building, or close its doors.

Because the building has no elevators, and its main entrance sits atop a flight of stairs, the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration has mandated that the library cannot remain open without taking steps to become handicap accessible.

And the ground floor, which holds the library’s surplus books as well its only bathroom, was also found to be problematic. Formerly the site of the town offices, the now-derelict space violates fire codes and accessibility regulations, and so has “all been deemed unusable,” Manning said. “That’s a lot of empty room going to waste.”

Not to mention that the bathroom situation is technically illegal — only library staff should be allowed to enter the unusable space — but patrons must pass through the library’s office/storage room in order to get downstairs.

Manning said VOSHA may force the library to close if the building does not undergo significant renovations — including an elevator, a second-floor bathroom and a ground-floor entrance — which the library is currently too small to accommodate.

To resolve these issues, library officials are planning to build an addition, estimated to cost $750,000. So far, Just over half of this amount had been raised.

The quaint Colonial Revival building on the corner of Safford Street and Alexander Place has enough history behind it to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places; but, whereas many libraries have expanded or updated their buildings to keep up with the times, the Royalton Memorial Library building has changed little since its dedication in 1923.

This is not for lack of trying on the part of the library’s board of trustees. “It is, and always has been, a money issue,” Manning said. “We’re writing grants just as fast as we can, but we’re also relying heavily on donations.”

But this is not the first time the library building has found itself at a crossroads.

Designed by the architect and Hartford native Louis Sheldon Newton, who left his mark on many buildings around the Upper Valley, construction of the Royalton Memorial Library first broke ground in 1919. By 1921, the exterior frame was all but completed — but the funds for the project were all but gone, and it ground to an indefinite halt. It was unclear how, or if, the library would open, said John Dumville, a trustee of the library and Vermont’s former historic sites operations chief.

“And so Mrs. Lovejoy got to work,” he said. “Again.”

Lovejoy, a teacher at Royalton Academy who strongly believed in what a free public library could offer the growing village of South Royalton, was “the big mover” behind raising pledges from townspeople for the library’s construction, Dumville said.

She had donated the proceeds from her exhaustive, 1,000-plus-page tome, The History of Royalton, to the Royalton Memorial Library fund. Now, she canvassed the town with renewed vigor, knocking on doors and soliciting donations from individuals and businesses.

In the spirit of inclusiveness she so strongly believed in, Lovejoy wrote thank-you notes to each and every donor, even if all they could spare was a dime, Dumville said.

“She acknowledged everyone,” he added. “She wanted everyone to know that they were all contributing to a free public library in town, and that it belonged to all of them.”

Prior to the formation of the Royalton Memorial Library Association, Lovejoy was elected to the board of library trustees of the now-defunct Royalton Free Public Library, which was located in Royalton village. When she took this position in 1912, she became the first woman elected to public office in the town of Royalton.

“Mrs. Lovejoy was a truly remarkable woman,” Dumville said. “She’d love that the library has seen so much activity over the years.”

The past several years alone have seen a sharp uptick in this activity, said library assistant Sage Lewis, who is also serving as interim co-director of the library. Between 2013 and 2016, the library saw an 11.6 percent increase in visits, and the number of people who attended programs at the library increased by 130 percent.

“Something I find really interesting is that many libraries have been established in previously existing buildings,” Lewis said. The Royalton Free Pubic Library had been a bank, for example. “But (Royalton Memorial Library) was built specifically to be a library.”

This is not immediately obvious upon walking in, Manning noted. The first thing patrons see upon entering the building is its brick fireplace and cozy armchairs. To the left of the fireplace, a classically detailed archway leads into the children’s room, which once housed the town’s historical society.

“You feel the warmth when you walk in,” Manning said. “You feel welcomed.”

As a library that was always meant to be a library, Royalton’s has served its purpose well over the years — so well, in fact, that public engagement with the library has surpassed its capacity, Lewis said. The children’s room is too small to fit the 30-odd kids who show up for the weekly story hour, and Lewis often finds herself moving furniture around to accommodate the little ones.

Lewis said expanding the library will allow it to serve a more diverse range of needs. People for whom climbing the library stairs presents a challenge, such as those with physical limitations or with strollers, will benefit from the new entrance and elevator. And, once the ground floor of the building is up to code, it will be used as a children’s room, a teen room and a meeting room, which will make for a less distracting environment for those trying to concentrate. (Lewis said she doesn’t believe in shushing children, as she finds that it creates an unwelcoming atmosphere).

Manning said the Montpelier-based architect for the expanded library, Jay White, was selected in part for his eye for preserving historic integrity.

But Dumville pointed out that, thanks to Evelyn Lovejoy’s vision of Royalton Memorial Library as an inclusive, dynamic community hub, expanding the library is also a way of staying true to its original purpose.

“I have a feeling that Mrs. Lovejoy was a progressive enough woman that she would be jumping up and down in joy that we are moving toward a 21st century library, not stuck in one that was built in and designed for the 1920s,” Dumville said.

“She certainly would be knocking on doors.”


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Information from: Valley News, http://www.vnews.com/