St. Johnsbury Athenaeum fights to keep history alive - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

St. Johnsbury Athenaeum fights to keep history alive

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It is story time and project time at the library, a scene that could be taking place in any town in Vermont.

"It's important, well story time is particularly important to bring the little ones age zero to 5 or 6 typically, so they are at the very least exposed to books at an early age because that is so important to put books into their hands," said MacKenzie Ross, a librarian at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum.

But the location is what sets this learning experience apart; it's taking place at the Athenaeum in St Johnsbury. It was built in 1871 by Horace Fairbanks, a member of the Fairbanks Scales family as a gift to his community.

"He wanted the workers who were here-- and the Fairbanks Factory needed thousands of people to be satisfied with living here. It wasn't that you were going to have to travel somewhere else, the sophisticated workers he needed, this town was going to have the amenities that a bigger city would have had," said Bob Joly, director of the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum.

Along with the library there is also an art museum with items collected by Horace Fairbanks and anchored by a painting called "The Domes of Yosemite" by Albert Bierstadt.

While this building and its contents are a monument to the 19th century belief in learning, modern times have proven challenging.

One year ago because of financial difficulties, the entire staff was laid off, prompting a "group hug" by concerned community members as a show of support for the Athenaeum.

"It was a pretty rough year. We had a period where there was no executive director here," Joly said.

Since then, Joly was hired back and is now executive director. Several other staffers are back, as well. But finances are still fragile. And then there is the changing world of technology. Even so, you can't help but notice there is something special about this space versus the local school library.

"This has a lot more books... a lot more classy and stuff like that," said Brandon Breer, a St. Johnsbury fifth-grader.

The goal, Joly says, is to preserve the past while embracing the future.

In order to keep the Athenaeum moving forward and fresh, they have added something new thanks to the work of a local contemporary artist. Works by folk artist Warren Kimble are on loan to the Athenaeum. And the exhibit upstairs in a lecture hall has been a hit.

"The response has been terrific," Joly said. "People really love the show. They ask who it is, when they hear it's Warren Kimble they say that's not the Warren Kimble we are used to; it's different kind of work."

Joly hopes to continue with new exhibits by local artists every quarter, with contemporary works that will complement the permanent collection that has been on display for more than 100 years. And he hopes the new exhibits will help increase donations and grants. About 8,000 people visit the gallery each year.

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