Every community has an issue which an outsider might look at and say, ‘That? You’re fighting about that?’
In Gilmanton, that’s the Year-Round Library.
The library is a private non-profit, but is open to the public. It’s in a gorgeous refurbished timber-frame barn; two stories tall with old rough-hewn beams surrounded by a modern shell. It was built through private fundraising, and fundraising helps pay operating costs too.
But since it opened in 2009 it has come back to the town every year for funding to help with operating costs. This year, that ask is just shy of $46,000 dollars.
Two residents of the town on opposite sides of this issue – Selectman Don Guarino and current president of the library association, Chris Schlegel – met me last week to discuss the question in the library itself.
Both had stories about how this issue has cropped up in their day-to-day lives.
“A home that had been sold and transferred owners, a new owner called, me after plowing for them for a couple seasons, and says I don’t any longer need your services,” remembers Don Guarino who is skeptical of public funding for the library, “I said was it the way that I was plowing the driveway, and he said no, it’s your position on the library!”
Perhaps it’s no surprise – since town meeting is always in March – that Schlegel’s story had to do with snow plows as well. She had someone plow down one of her pro-library yard signs.
“It was buried in a huge pile of snow, and it was perfect snow-man snow, so I went back out and got another sign and built a snowman and put the sign back up,” she says, “And we actually ended up taking a picture of it, which ended up on social media.”
Guarino laughs, and says, “Chris I want to you know that I didn’t plow your any of your signs down or take any of them.”
Clearly, on this issue, the tensions run deep in Gilmanton.
To understand how a library can be the most controversial issue in a town, you have to understand its history. Many people in town, even those who donated to the group that built the library, thought it was never going to need town money.
Schlegel says the library board did tell selectmen they might have to make a request and she showed me some documentation: minutes of a select-board meeting where a library representative gave an update.
“We do have some notes from 2006, one of the representatives said that she would not be ashamed to go to the town for operating funds at that point,” she says, producing a printout with some sections highlighted.
“I don’t doubt that at all, I think it’s truly, it’s the perception previously to that. And so I have something too,” Guarino responds, and pulls out a year-round library fund-raising brochure from back before it was built, with one section underlined. He has the brochure mounted on a piece of foam.
“Plan for an endowment of $225,000 dollars to support the operation of the library,” reads the underlined section.
“There, there it is,” says Guarino, who asserts that during the fundraising campaign, the library was pitched as something that would never need public funding.
This year the library’s ask would be about 1.3 percent of the town’s overall spending, and would cost each family $10.27 dollars per $100,000 of property value. That would cover 60 percent of the library’s $76,000 dollar budget.
Those numbers and that history continues to divide the town.
And let me be clear about where I fit into this. I grew up in Gilmanton, and my parents have yes to the library sign in their yard, but I’m a reporter and my job isn’t to advocate for one side or the other. One former chair of the library board was the parent of two classmates, and another was my middle school science teacher.
But Don Guarino also helped build an addition my parents put on their house, and I coached his daughter on the ski team.
While you see the “Vote Yes! Library” signs all through town, you also can’t swing a cat at any gathering in Gilmanton without hitting friends who think the library doesn’t need town money.
Last year, in a town of 3,800 people, funding passed by 17 votes, and the year before it didn’t pass.
“It’s really hard when you’re saying we have 1,600 card-holders, we know that’s about half of the town, the other half is saying no,” Guarino says to Schlegel.
“I think, one thing too, I think there’s kind of a philosophical difference between the folks who support tax-payer funding and those who don’t,” she responds, “And I think a big part of that is I personally see a library in the much the same vein as I see a school in a community. I consider it essential.”
There are two other libraries that get a few thousand dollars in town funding – though they are just a few small rooms, closed for part of the year – and there’s also the school library. So, some residents say the town has libraries, and this one should support itself.
I asked these two for prediction for town meeting day. But both said it was too close to call.
“The one thing I would like to say is no matter which way it goes, whether approve funding or not, I think the conversation needs to continue,” says Schlegel.
That conversation is already underway, between these two at least. For instance, Guarino floated the idea of merging the school library and the year-round library, and either building a tunnel under the busy state highway that separates the two buildings, or buying a small bus to ferry students across.
If the library doesn’t get funding, it will have to subsist on fundraising alone, as it did in 2013.
But no matter how the town votes, when I go home to visit, I expect to be hearing about the library for some time to come. In small towns, people have long memories.