There was a time when a town public library was the one place to go for information on almost any subject. If the librarian couldn't answer your question, she could at least tell you where to look. Today, thanks to technology, librarians are even better equipped to find, sort, and evaluate information, but town libraries are at risk of being overwhelmed by the convenience of home computers and Internet search engines. The World Wide Web is everyman's electronically searchable worldwide library, and much of it is free.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
If one imagined that the only role of libraries is to warehouse books and DVDs, one would conclude that technology will very soon render libraries as curiosities like slide rules, typewriters, and turntables. However, Edgartown librarian Felicia Cheney disagrees. She says, "A library makes information accessible and manageable. It tells you about sources of information you didn't even know existed."
Martha's Vineyard's six public libraries are far more than warehouses. They not only store information, they make it useful, practical, and even inspiring. Libraries used to be silent places. Now they offer an alternative to the isolation of the home computer. Where librarians used to say "Shhhhh," now they say, "Let's get together and talk about it."
Photo courtesy Nis Kildegaard
A case in point is the Edgartown library's newest offering, "Edgartown 101," co-sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard League of Women Voters.
Public libraries were first established as an important ingredient in American democracy. Their role, like that of the first public schools, was to ensure an informed electorate.
Writing in the "Library Journal in October 2002," librarian Michael Baldwin quoted Thomas Jefferson: "No nation can remain both ignorant and free." Mr. Baldwin went on to comment, "The freedoms we enjoy through democracy are currently endangered by popular ignorance and political apathy. Public librarians can be a big part of the solution if we will accept the responsibility."
This winter, Edgartown residents can take a course at the Edgartown Public Library to learn how their town government works. There will be no tests or papers, and you don't even have to go to all the classes, but you'll be a more informed voter, and you'll understand how to interact with town boards and departments if the need arises. Reference librarian Nis Kildegaard assures, "There's no final exam - unless you count town meeting."
File photo by Ben Scott
Beginning on January 21, Edgartown 101 will teach citizens how they can engage with their town officials. Six sessions will introduce participants to different aspects of town government (see box below). At each session, various town officials will explain how their departments function and how the public can make the best use of, or appeal to, their elected and appointed officials. The panelists will say what each believes the public understands least about their jobs - and what they wish the public understood better. Although the forum is not intended to be a venue to air specific grievances, participants will be asked to question and challenge the panelists. For persons who consider that becoming part of town government might be a way to give something back to their community, Edgartown 101 would be a good place to start.
Ms. Cheney gives Mr. Kildegaard credit for conceiving and developing the program. Inspired by Michael Baldwin's essay quoted above, Mr. Kildegaard first presented the idea in the fall of 2007. League of Women Voters President Judy Crawford arranged for the League to co-sponsor the program, and community volunteer Christina Brown helped in the planning. Shelved when the library's furnace failed in December 2007 and the library was closed for six months, Edgartown 101 is now ready to go.
Some, if not all, of the sessions will be taped and DVDs will be available in the spring.
Six Wednesday programs, offered at the library at 7 pm.
Jan. 21: Inside Town Meeting, Inside Town Hall. Jeff Norton, long-time Edgartown moderator, and Pamela Dolby, town administrator, are panelists for this opening session, introducing the traditions of the New England town meeting, discussing the structure of town government and laying the groundwork for the programs that follow.
Jan. 28: Our Money: How Edgartown Gets It and Spends It. Representatives from the board of assessors and the finance committee present an overview of town government spending - the pie chart of where our money goes.
Feb. 4: The Board of Selectmen: Who's Really in Charge? Arthur Smadbeck, chairman of the board of selectmen, is tonight's panelist, speaking on the responsibilities of the selectmen, and on the limits of their power.
Feb. 11: Public Education, for Our Children and Ourselves. The school committee and library trustees are represented on the panel in this session, which will focus on education as the largest expense, and arguably the largest responsibility, of the town.
Feb. 18: Regulating Land Use: What We Build, and Where. In this first of two sessions on land use, panelists are drawn from the planning board, zoning board of appeals, and the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
Feb. 25: Regulating Land Use: Protecting Our Environment. To this final session, panelists are invited from the conservation commission, board of health, and Land Bank.