Although the Varnum Library in Jeffersonville has decided to leave the HomeCard system, sparking another round of public criticism of the institution, its board of directors is promising sustainability and stability.

A regional cooperative that allows Varnum card holders to check out materials from over 100 other participating libraries in Vermont, the HomeCard system functions as a cooperative among libraries and involves no state oversight.

As chair Krista Huling and the public-private Varnum Library’s board of directors — a board that consists of five publicly elected trustees and five members elected among the Crescendo Club Library Association, the non-profit that fundraises and helps govern the library — has sought to put the library on a path to sustainability under heavy scrutiny, the decision not to renew the library’s HomeCard contract has been met with some public criticism.

The outcry was initially led by Kathy Quimby Johnson, the Cambridge community columnist for the News & Citizen, who wrote in an April 21 letter to the editor that she was “outraged” the library was offering less public services instead of more and announced her total withdrawal as a patron and supporter. Others followed on social media.

But according to Huling, leaving the HomeCard system was more complicated than simply deciding to stop offering patrons a service. The HomeCard contract was up for renewal, but there was no data on how many library users took advantage of the program.

The contract also made the Varnum liable for late fees and the cost to replace damaged or lost material that patrons checked out from other libraries, even while the library had no oversight over how many materials were being checked out and how much that debt might be.

Huling noted that the Varnum technically has 343 past-due materials amounting to over $8,000, though the library does not charge late fees, to illustrate how being accountable for patron’s expenses at other libraries could be disastrous.

The Varnum will also continue to participate in the state-supported inter-library loan system, where Varnum patrons can request materials from any library in the statewide system. The loan system allows them to access material outside the Varnum without having to travel; the HomeCard system doesn’t include other libraries in Lamoille County.

Huling has led the library’s board of directors for over a year to force the beleaguered institution into fiscal solvency, consistency and sustainability.

This move has not been without its controversies and detractors. Shortly after Huling took over, the Varnum’s entire staff, including former director Christy Liddy, resigned in protest against changes Huling and other Crescendo Club trustees were implementing and their management tactics. This prompted a public outcry and scrutiny from the Cambridge Selectboard.

Ultimately the selectboard expressed its confidence in Huling and the board in the form of a one-time allotment of $90,000 from the town’s budget, $20,000 under the condition that the library provide quarterly reports detailing its spending. Despite this budget increase, the Varnum remains underfunded compared to libraries serving similarly sized communities.

In January, the News & Citizen revealed publicly that Liddy had threatened legal action against the Varnum and Cambridge after a critical report and comments made by library leaders and selectboard members apportioned her the lion’s share of the blame for its dire financial situation.

The potential lawsuit still looms, with Liddy making remote appearances at Cambridge selectboard meetings as recently as April.

Liddy confirmed to the News & Citizen that she continued to explore her options regarding legal actions against the library board but was also “heartened” by the ongoing dialogue in the community, chastising the current library board for not seeking advice from the Vermont Department of Libraries and failing to “read past budgets.”

The department, however, has no official stance on the HomeCard system, according to its director Catherine Delneo. It does support and advocate for the inter-library loan system, which comes with some liability for libraries that participate, but overdue fees are rarely passed on to borrowing libraries.

According to Huling, the Varnum’s current library director participates in training with the department of libraries and is in contact with the department as needed.

Huling also touted the overlooked growth and recent accomplishments of the library. Staffed by a director and circulation assistant that each work 25 hours a week, a programming specialist that works 10 hours a week and volunteers, the library has been able to remain open 40 hours a week.

In April, the Varnum checked out 703 books to 512 patrons and hosted 11 events. Upcoming events include career help, a story hour for children and community clean up.

Huling and the other directors are also at work on a strategic plan to safeguard the library’s long-term viability, which will include a community survey, an analysis of the library’s financial assets and a three-year plan.

“If you want to see how the Varnum is doing, walk in and judge for yourself,” Huling said. “The board aims to serve the whole community the best we can with the modest budget we have to operate.”

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