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Magazines > Information Today > February 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 2 — February 2004

On the Road
A Unique International Experience
By Donald T. Hawkins

"Anything to declare?" is a question that's familiar to international travelers the world over. But how would you feel about routinely crossing an international border in your daily life, even for the simple act of going to the library and borrowing some books? This is exactly what residents of Derby Line, Vt., and Rock Island, Quebec, must do when they visit the Haskell Library, which serves both communities.

Straddling the U.S.-Canada border, the library is surely one of the most unusual in the world. The international boundary passes directly through the building. It is designated by a black line on the floor, goes through the reading room, and separates the book stacks and circulation desk in Canada from the library offices and main entrance in the U.S.

The library is housed in a beautiful historical building, which it shares with the Haskell Opera House. (Plays are presented in Canada, and audiences sit in the U.S.) The building was recently restored and brought up to modern building-code standards with the installation of fire escapes, access for the disabled, etc., at a cost of more than $800,000.

The renovation proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare, which considerably inflated its cost. It had to comply not only with the regulations of two local jurisdictions and two historical preservation commissions, but also the customs laws of both countries. In one amusing incident, an elevator was purchased from a Canadian company for installation in the U.S. part of the building, but the steelworkers from both countries would not cross the border. When administrators found out that a customs duty might be imposed, a creative solution was devised. A large crane parked on the Canadian side was used to hoist the elevator across to the U.S. side and place it through a hole in the roof.

The library serves residents of both Derby Line and Rock Island by providing Internet access and the usual circulation services. It doesn't have an online catalog—something of an anachronism these days. But according to assistant librarian Nancy Rumery, the only users who have difficulty with the old-fashioned cards are children, who don't know how to use them. The 30,000-book collection has a sizable number of French-language titles, which is not surprising given the library's placement in Quebec.

Most of the library's $150,000 annual budget comes from a private endowment set up by the Haskell family (who also provided the building) in 1910. This helps avoid any of the problems that would ensue because of the international boundary. Small contributions are also made by the state and provincial library funds of Vermont and Quebec. (The latter's funding largely supports the French-language collection.)

According to Rumery, the international boundary causes few problems for the library's staff or users, provided residents of each country park their cars on their own side of the border and walk to the library. Two separate payrolls are maintained—one for U.S. and one for Canadian employees—and purchases can be made from either country. (The library even has a heating oil tank on each side of the border so that it can buy from suppliers in either country and thus obtain the most favorable price.) The library operates as a resource for both communities in a spirit of cooperation with local law-enforcement authorities. Rumery noted that in 1910, when the building was constructed, the exact location of the border was unknown, and such a structure almost certainly would not be permitted to be built today.

Rumery said that no one on the library staff has an M.L.S. degree, although all employees have received advanced training in library operations. She said, however, that this situation is not unusual in Vermont, which has the most libraries per capita of any state. With its low population and generally rural nature, Vermont does not have many librarians who hold an M.L.S. degree. Rumery feels that in a library serving a small community, the lack of an M.L.S. is not a hindrance.

But where else would you find a library that adjoins an opera house? The Haskell Library staff also operates the adjoining venue. It rents space to performers, prints and sells tickets, prints brochures, and arranges other details. It even conducts tours for visitors.

Because of its international, bicultural environment and the attraction of the opera house, a visit to the Haskell Library is a unique and enjoyable experience. In addition, the staff is accustomed to welcoming a frequent stream of visitors. Information Today readers are sure to find the library as fascinating as I did. Just be sure to park on the correct side of the international boundary, or you'll have to report to customs when you leave.

 


Donald T. Hawkins is information technology and database consultant at Information Today, Inc. and editor in chief of computer and information science databases at EBSCO Publishing. His e-mail address is dthawkins@verizon.net.
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