Top shelf

Margaret Woodruff and the transformation of the Charlotte Library

When she arrived in Charlotte 23 years ago, a mother seeking diversion for her young children found a welcome resource at the Charlotte Library. Some time later, a position opened and she applied. No previous experience — yet it turned out to be the “perfect match,” as one library trustee said.

The Charlotte Library turns 25 this year. Margaret Woodruff has been there for 20 of them, rising from youth services librarian to director for the past nine years. She has seen the library evolve from, well, a library — that is a book-centric operation devoted mainly to the acquisition and lending of reading matter — to a multi-faceted service organization that takes your trash, helps your garden — and still lends out 13,000 books.

Photo by Steve Goldstein Margaret Woodruff has been with the Charlotte Library for 20 of the libraries 25 years.
Photo by Steve Goldstein
Margaret Woodruff has been with the Charlotte Library for 20 of the libraries 25 years.

There are reading groups and book chats and children’s activities galore. A reading group for men and other groups for almost everyone. A garden, a seed library — check out some heirloom tomatoes. Recycling? You betcha. In fact, the library recycles some things that drop-off centers do not accept. There’s pre-school story time and free play. At a patron’s request, Woodruff organized viewings of the recent soccer World Cup.

You can even borrow such in-demand, non-book items as pickleball rackets and large burdock removers.

They haven’t yet branched out into wildlife control but the library can handle skunks. When the nearby Charlotte Children’s Center ran afoul of a visiting skunk and had to vacate, youth librarian Cheryl Sloan and other staff made space for the preschool refugees and turned odor into order.

Charlotte is one of 188 public libraries in Vermont — the most per person of any state. The library in many towns and villages has become a community center, or better stated, a center of community. There’s no admission charge, no one chides you for staying too long and everyone is welcome. It is this welcoming atmosphere that many Charlotte residents cite about the library staff and particularly Woodruff.

Jonathan Silverman, chair of the Charlotte Library Board of Trustees, praised Woodruff as someone who “follows through with suggestions, is an excellent writer, communicates with clarity and empathy, is community-minded, seems to have read every conceivable book in the library and has a keen sense of humor.”

Lest you think, well, what’s so hard about running a library, listen to Nan Mason. She was on the first board of trustees — the one that hired Woodruff — and said the screening process sometimes seemed like science fiction.

“In the course of interviewing librarians over the years,” Mason related, “one of our trustees said he wanted to ask a serious question. Does it make you mad when people take books out? Not one, but two candidates said, Yeah, because, you know, it really messes up the shelves.”

“Margaret,” added Mason, “was just a dream come true, honestly.”

You could say the profession chose Woodruff rather than the other way around. Call her the Accidental Librarian.

Woodruff grew up in southern California, where her father taught at Pomona College. In high school, she took advantage of an American Field Service program and spent her junior year abroad living with a family in Japan.

She graduated from Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. She started as pre-med but eventually switched to history. It was there she met her husband, Charles. Her classmate and friend Sarah Baily said so many student marriages took place that the school was nicknamed the “Quaker Matchbox.”

Baily described Woodruff as a “Renaissance woman,” adding that “she is passionate about a lot of these different interests. The library is a good match because she’s very curious.”

Woodruff lived in Philadelphia for a time and then in Massachusetts, where she worked in museums, including the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. When her husband was offered a job in Vermont, they moved here in 2000. She took a job at the Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington, but her interest and her heart were elsewhere.

“There were some possibilities, maybe helping coordinate a program,” she said. “I had three small children, and it was going to be more work and the chance of not very successful, so it seemed better to concentrate on other things. I learned how to have a vegetable garden, and we started raising chickens, and then the very first place we came when we moved to Charlotte was the library.”

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Margaret Woodruff, edited for length and clarity:

The Charlotte News: How did you first come to work at the library?
Margaret Woodruff: The library was the very first place I brought my children when we moved here. A job opening came up, and my youngest had started preschool, so it seemed like a good time to try that. And that led to this

TCN: Have you always had an affinity for libraries?
MW: Some of my earliest memories of childhood are of going to the library with my grandmother. When I was in sixth grade, I was sort of a quasi-volunteer at a library in my hometown and always found it a place of enjoyment and escape. It was exciting to think that maybe I could share some of that enjoyment and fulfillment that I had with people here or get a 10 year old started on a love of reading.

TCN: How has the director’s job changed over the years?
MW: There’s sort of a running joke among directors of small libraries: your resume could be many pages long because you’re running the mystery book group, and then you are getting out the Legos for the playgroup. And then in between, you have to unstop the toilet or fix the light switch or make sure that the snow is coming off the roof in a safe way. So, I think it was just the breadth of tasks.

TCN: Describe the ways in which the library has changed.
MW: When I started working here, we were sort of just at the tail end of sort of what I grew up with as a library, which was sort of much lower technology. We had computers available, but our programming and everything was centered on books. I still think that is the most important part of the library. Being able to provide people with accurate and relevant and up-to-date information is one of the most important things that libraries everywhere do. But the breadth of what we do has expanded so much. I mean, I think technology, which has changed everybody’s lives so much, is certainly part of it now. We help people check out an ebook or download an audiobook. I think COVID also changed us as our worlds kind of closed up a little and people were looking for other ways to access information. Certainly, we had many more people starting to use the digital content that we provide, and then also our interlibrary loan.

TCN; How did the recycling program come about?
MW: People were asking if we could help find ways for them to recycle batteries and plastic wrap and toothbrushes and a variety of other things. That is something I’d never imagined we would be doing at the library but here we are. We also have a quite robust seed library program here and extensive gardens connected with that. Since you can register to vote at the town hall across the street rather than trying to have a voter registration program here at the library, we instead have information about how to contact the people at town hall.

TCN ; What was your thinking about your popular book chats?
MW: Yeah, it’s sort of a way to highlight books that might have been overlooked by any of us on the staff or other readers. So I pick a theme, usually based on like, today’s theme. Today happens to be Supermarket Employee Appreciation Day. So I searched through the library catalog for anything that came up that had to do with supermarkets, and some of the books you would not imagine they have anything to do with supermarkets, but it gives me a filter for looking for new books to discuss.

TCN: Tell me about the sustainable library program.
MW: I was able to get some funding for us to start a sustainable libraries working group here. In Vermont there are 17 libraries that are working towards certification to become a sustainable library. There’s a process, and you work towards fulfilling these various criteria that work towards maintaining a sustainable environmental footprint.

TCN: Have you had requests from any groups or individuals that books be removed from circulation?
MW: No. We have a fairly rigorous reconsideration of materials, so if someone objects, there’s a form they fill out to present it to the library board. Then there’s a subcommittee that reviews their request for reconsideration. And then a determination is made. We’ve never had to do that in the time I’ve been here, I think. I hope that people realize that there’s all different kinds of books for all different kinds of people.