Martha Canfield Library aims to foster dialogue on Fisher debate

ARLINGTON — For Arlington's Martha Canfield Library, the debate over the legacy of local author Dorothy Canfield Fisher may prove to be a teachable moment.

The Library's Board of Trustees met Monday night to discuss the issue, among other business, and agreed that taking a specific stance on Fisher would be inappropriate for a such an institution.

"There are a whole variety of complicated things feeding into this. I think instead of stating a position we should acknowledge that this happened, that there are various opinions, and we need to continue talking about it," said board member Bob Dudley. "I think that's fair and open."

At a presentation to the Vermont Department of Libraries in April, artist and educator Judy Dow presented evidence of Fisher's ties to Vermont's eugenics movement and argued for the removal of Fisher's name from the award.

A heated debated later occurred on July 11 at the Vermont Board of Libraries' quarterly meeting, which opted to delay making a decision. The board is expected to present its recommendation on the award to State Librarian Scott Murphy in October.

In the meantime, Murphy has asked the libraries across the state to share their thoughts on the issue with him.

"If we were to make a statement I think our role would not be to contribute to the debate -- I don't think there's any of us who have qualifications to do that," said board member Dave Van De Water. "We all have our opinions and know a certain amount of background, but in the end I think we should be promoting a teaching moment that helps children in Vermont."

"We should challenge the State Librarian to make a decision that we can support, because it does provide that teaching moment and it does provide the support to, and encouragement of, what the award has done throughout the years," said board member Sheila Kearns. "It's less whether the name is kept or not, but what it does to carry forward the award process itself."

To promote such a teaching moment, board members suggested hosting a community forum on the debate over Fisher and the larger issues driving it.

"It's also an opportunity for us to open up a dialogue," said Dudley. "That's what libraries are for; to challenge people's opinions."

According to Kearns, such a dialogue would also fit the tone of the book award itself.

"What we can see with the books that have been chosen [for Dorothy's List], and the award winners, is that they do represent various points of view," said Kearns. "They're encouraging children to think broadly, and look at worlds that differ from their own experiences."

Though the issues surrounding eugenics and sterilization specifically are historical in nature, they could provoke a more modern discussion on prejudice and discrimination according to Dudley.

"Instead of French Canadians [a group Dow claims Fisher discriminated against, alongside the Abenaki] now they're Syrians, and Iraqis, and muslims," said Dudley. "We need to talk about those issues openly and fairly."

In addition to promoting a community discussion, the board expressed interest in beginning to cultivate a collection of resources -- likely in the form of links on the library's website -- to provide more information on the issue.

"People need to have information to support or contradict their opinions," said board member Alyson Grzyb. "If that information is accessible and we can somehow get it to them, I think we should be doing that."

"We are a library first and foremost," said Dudley. "What we should be doing is providing information."

Regardless of the decision made by State Librarian Scott Murphy, board members hope that the debate can serve to enrich the community.

"The more I read about Dorothy Canfield Fisher's ideas and convictions I find that they were incredibly complex; they evolved and changed," said Kearns. "Maybe what we want is a book award that allows for the evolution of ideas, the development of ideas, and the complexity of viewpoints."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.


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