Photos by Tom Parker
The heart of a city:
Vermillion Public Library is where the community comes together
“This is the hub of the town,” says Audrey Broxterman.
She wasn’t talking about some pie-in-the-sky theoretical concept of how the small rural town of Vermillion rotates around the axis of the library, nor was she referring to the precise geographical placement of what was the former Twidwell Hotel. The hotel-turned-library is located at the extreme southern end of the town, fronting the railroad tracks and an abandoned grain elevator complex. Past that—all open country, an abrupt and sudden demarcation that people used to metropolitan areas find disturbing or novel, depending on their personality.
No, Audrey, the town’s librarian, was telling the truth: the Vermillion Public Library is the hub. For within its foursquare walls are the city offices, council chambers, community meeting room, library and historical society. With the exception of the cafe/bar across the street or the park out back, pretty much anything public that happens in town happens at the library.
It’s as much a matter of convenience as it is necessity. With a population of about 100 (107 at the 2000 census, and declining), life is reduced to the core, a minimalist approach to civilization. The term “centralized” comes to mind.
Library patron sits in front of one of the replacement windows, earned through creative fundraisers, provide views of Main Street
One might think that such a low population base would preclude the need for a fully equipped modern library with fiber-optic Internet connectivity, revolving bestsellers and state-of-the-art computers—and even a large-screen monitor with Skype, enabling residents to videophone their relatives and see them in real time—but the patron pool doesn’t end at the railroad tracks. Indeed, Audrey says, fully 80 percent of the library’s use comes from rural residents.
Keeping the library viable and relevant is a constant struggle, though. To have a book mobile come up from Manhattan, the library provides a story hour and book rental for students at USD 380 Centralia-Frankfort. Doing so keeps the circulation volumes high, as well as encourages literacy among students.
“I continually see the library having to sell itself,” Audrey says. “It has to promote itself and keep people’s interest. We try to be very vocal, which means we write news articles for local papers and publish tidbits of history and community happenings to our Web site, and include the minutes to meetings. We’ve developed a strong following.”
The library also joined forces with a new community outreach program called “Friends of the Vermillion Community.” The 501(c)3 non-profit organization works to preserve and sustain the entire town through fundraisers, grants and awareness of infrastructure needs. Future projects will be as diverse as restoration of the town’s depot and park, sidewalk additions and repair and new windows for the library.
The children's section of the Vermillion Library doubles as a community meeting room and council chambers
Recently one front window was replaced through creative thinking coupled with a severe winter. Across the street in a vacant lot the city piled the tons of snow that had been plowed from the streets. The library offered a raffle, one dollar per ticket, for the most accurate guess for when the pile of snow would melt. To encourage ticket sales, ten percent of the proceeds would go to the winner. It was a smashing success.
Last summer the library hosted a farmer’s market out front, and several years ago instituted an author’s day during the Memorial Day weekend. “We’re always trying to generate new ideas,” Audrey says.
That kind of ingenuity has been the hallmark of the library since its inception in 1903. Organized by the Mutual Improvement Club to promote intellectual development among its members and to create and maintain a library, the club began with a handful of donated books. So few books, in fact, that they were stored in a soapbox.
In 1914 a city hall was built, with one room set aside for the budding library. Book campaigns steadily added volumes, though at one point termites made it necessary to destroy many of the books. From the beginning, librarians and board members were strictly on a volunteer basis, a policy that continues to this day.
Audrey, who has served as librarian since 2000, sees it as a way of giving back to the community.
“I could have been a stay-at-home farmer’s wife,” she says. “But I wanted to do something worthwhile for the community. I needed to be around people. When the opportunity came to become librarian, I jumped at it. You could say it was need pulled together by education, the desire for growth, development and preservation.”
She insists, however, that it’s very much a community effort. Board members regularly meet to discuss ways to further the goals of the library, including one snowbird member who “attends” meetings via Skype. They also run the library on rotating shifts. Their tech guru, a young farmer with a college degree in technology, even works the occasional Saturday.
Over 4,800 books are in the permanent collection. Technological improvements include four computers and two laptops, all of which were paid for by the First National Bank of Vermillion.
Not long ago Audrey came across a photo of an old bank that was a spitting image of the hotel. Above each window was painted faux keystone arches—a nice touch, she thought, and a showstopper to boot. She immediately took the photo to the city council and asked them to consider painting the building to match.
She also discussed adding a storm door to help preserve the original wooden front door, as well as additional window replacements. Upkeep is a continual balancing act with the minimal funding allotted.
Audrey remains fiercely undaunted and optimistic, however. “We have some dreams here,” Audrey says. And, as history has proven, dreams have a way of coming true.