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
catalogsomething 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
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 maintainedone for U.S. and one for Canadian employeesand 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