Interviewer: Michael N. Kline
Place of Interview: Concord Free Public Library
Transcriptionist: Carrie N. Kline
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Audio file is in .mp3 format.
Michael N. Kline: Okay. Here we are at the Concord Free Public Library on June 15th. A rainy afternoon. And, but it's always pleasant to be here. I have developed a real affection for this library.
Barbara Powell: Oh, good.
MK: It has such a good vibe.
BP: It does. It's hard to even get depressed on a rainy afternoon here.
MK: [Laughs] Would you mind starting by introducing yourself? "My name is--?"
BP: My name is Barbara Powell.
MK: And we never ask people their ages, but maybe you'd tell us your date of birth, so we can put this in a--.
BP: I would be glad to tell you that I'm almost seventy years old, and I was born on January 14th, 1940.
MK: January 14th. Just three weeks older than I am.
BP: Is that right? Well, I get to pull some rank then. [Laughs]
Carrie N. Kline: [Laughs]
MK: Start off if you would and tell us a little bit about your people and where you were raised.
BP: My parents were separately Margaret Miller, who was the daughter of New York, New Jersey upper-middle-class folks. And my father was Ralph Miller, a son of a Kansas farmer who came east to work for Bell Labs in 1928 or early 1929. And they were very satisfactory parents. My father was very laid back, a very quiet atheist. And my mother was a very observing Methodist. And they reached a, they reached an agreement about that, and so we were gently reared in a New Jersey suburb.
[2:25] My father was involved in a lot of top secret work during World War Two with Bell Labs and has many patents related to that, including one that is pretty integral to digital communication. And my mother was a kindergarten teacher and then a pre-school teacher who was very interested in educational theory and applied it liberally to her children, and successfully to her children. So we had sort of a bucolic childhood in an area that had a lot of farmland and forest, and we were allowed to roam all around it and then later bicycle all around. So we were pretty unfettered.
MK: The days of unfettered childhood.
BP: Absolutely. Bring it back! My children were quite unfettered here in Concord. It's only recently that people have become so controlling of their children. My children had a very similar part of their childhood here in Concord, and they rode their bicycles all over the place. And they took the train into Boston and Cambridge, as I took the train into New York City. And so it's only recently that that kind of controlling thing has started here in Concord.
MK: Tell me a bit about your education then.
BP: I went to undergraduate school at Middlebury College, which is a small college in Vermont, also bucolic. And I then, seven or eight years later, got a Library Science Degree in Ann Arbor, Michigan while my husband was getting a Ph.D. And then many years later--. Let's see, seventy-two. Fifteen years later I got a Master's of Public Administration at the Kennedy School at Harvard.
MK: When did your love affair with libraries start?
BP: Well, I loved libraries always as a place to go to. I had no desire to work in one. And I've been thinking about what purpose my oral history could serve in the greater collection here, and I think that one of the roles it could play is to describe the life of a woman of my cohort, because I encountered several of the challenges that women of my generation encountered. I had always been very good at writing. And I was the editor of both the high school newspaper and an editor of the college newspaper and won some awards. And when I graduated from college I had initially intended to go to a big city newspaper and apprentice myself. And my father, who, as I said, was a very good father, a particularly good father of girls and had never been anything but supportive, pointed out that he knew guys that had gone to big city newspapers, and that one of two things would happen. Either I would be treated like the guys, in which case I would be reporting murders in Harlem, and he wasn't very enthusiastic about that, or I would be put on the woman's page, and, as he said, "We both will know how that--." "We both know how that will turn out!" So.
[6:40] So instead I took the Foreign Service Exam and pretty much—and passed it enough to be part of their pool. And, but they only took a small number, fifty or seventy-five. Then the other half of the pool waited to see if somebody failed. So I then had no job, going out of college, and then the CIA asked if I would like to come work for them, and that seemed like a plan, since it was in Washington, D.C. So I began working at the CIA. I was also good at languages, so I was put in the documents library and then trained on Cyrillic Russian and a couple other things. So I had that skill.
MK: The CIA was looking for somebody with Library Science skills?
BP: I had no Library Science skills then.
MK: . . . .
BP: I had a degree in, undergraduate degree in French and in American Literature. My father had pointed out that I might have to support myself someday. Had it occurred to me that I might have to support myself someday? So I took some Economics courses. But I was singularly unqualified to be anything particular. And I think frankly they recruited women out of places like Middlebury, because they wanted to keep the guys in-house. And so they would put us in visible places, and I was in the library.
[8:20] So I picked up some skills, and meanwhile I had started dating the brother of a friend of mine in Washington. And that became quite serious, at least on my side of it. And this is the other part of the dilemma of women of my cohort. I became pregnant. And so then I faced the problem of women who find themself in that situation. And he and I decided to marry. Abortion was available then through all your friends, but not openly. And several people spoke to me about that, but I actually did want to have the child, and so in a way I chose.
[9:15] We then had a quite happy life together for a while. He finished a Master's Degree at Georgetown. We then went to Ann Arbor where, as I said before, he got a Ph.D in Political Science and I got a degree in Library Science. And he then got an appointment to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and we moved to Charlottesville. But as life went on it became clear that he wasn't happy. And as I explored why that could be, it became clear, and I finally asked if in fact he were gay. And he was. So he then--. We tried to think what to do, and of course considered a lot of different routes. And finally he went to San Francisco for the summer to see how that felt and then came back and said it was too bizarre and he didn't want to do that. But he still was persistently unhappy. And finally a year later he decided that's what he would do.
[10:30] So I then--. By then I--. Because I had the skills--. What I've left out of this, of course, is that I continued to work in libraries. I worked at the Library of Congress. I worked at American University. When I went to Ann Arbor. I worked at the Ann Arbor Public Library. And when I was at the Ann Arbor Public Library my boss there said that he felt guilty because he was using me as a professional librarian. So he enabled my going back to library school at Michigan. And I sort of, course by course, got a degree.
[11:05] I then--. At the point that my husband decided to leave and go to San Francisco I had a job as the director of a branch library in Charlottesville, a branch public library that was in the University section of town. And very shortly after he left, a member, a person who had been a member of his department who had come up here to Harvard, began flying down to court me and my two children and my dog! And I was not eager to stay in the South with two daughters. I hope that doesn't offend you! But that was not a good--. I didn't find Charlottesville a particularly good place for young girls to be raised.
[12:00] My oldest daughter was well on her way to teen Queendom, and you know I just, the whole thing made me uncomfortable. So I was glad to come up here, and I remarried and moved to Concord. And that marriage was very short-lived. So since then--. At that point, however, I was living in Concord. I had--. I was the Assistant Director here, and I had a very low salary. I think I was making $13,000 then.
MK: And this was in--?
BP: 1983. And all I--. I figured out that I could make it if I could get to $30,000. And that was about very, very slightly less than what Directors were making then. So I realized that either I was going to get a directorship fast, and there were lots of small libraries where I could get a directorship fast, but that would not get me that amount of money. Or I would become the Director of a larger--. Assistant Director of a larger library also wouldn't get me to the amount. So really what I needed was a fairly large directorship fast.
[13:30] And there was a program at the Kennedy School then for older women. AndI figured that would give me the extra leg up. So I went back to that program for a year and graduated. Came back here briefly and then went to become the Director of the Belmont Public Library. And then when this directorship became free, I returned here.
MK: Why was that?
BP: And that was in 1991.
MK: Why did you come, leave there?
BP: Oh, I came back here because of Special Collections and because this was where I lived. But--.
MK: You were commuting to Belmont.
BP: To Belmont, right. But really it was just, it's a whole different quality of library as--. It just is a fantastic public library. So--. I took a cut in pay. I didn't really take a cut in pay, but once the health care benefits got taken out I took a cut in pay to come back. But I would never have not done that. It's such a great library.
[14:41] So by then I was securely a librarian! Despite my initial intentions. And that's a long answer to your question about what I loved about libraries.
MK: So this library attracted you because it had a long tradition of excellence, or--?
BP: It has a fabulous collection. People who--. Just the circulating library collection here--. Lots of small liberal arts colleges would die for it. It has been built very carefully over the years. And it's excellent. And but in addition, by the time I came back, I knew about all the Special Collections. I had written the first NEH grant to describe and get into the National Database Thoreau's and all the other monographs that were here, Thoreau's own library and all the other monographs. And I knew about all the other things that were here. And there was just so much work to be done here to build national and international access to those collections that go back into the 17th century. And I also had, before I left here, hired Leslie [Wilson] as a grant employee to do that first bibliographic work, so I knew where I could find the help I needed. She had then left and had three children, and then moved out to Lancaster.
[16:22] But so it just was a challenge. I could make enough money to get my kids through undergraduate school and graduate school, and get married. And I bought a couple cars! That was sort of the extent of my hopes at that point.
MK: So you've been pretty happy I take it in this--?
BP: Yeah. I mean I think you're always happy when you're accomplishing something that you value. And I raised eight million dollars and renovated this library. And I think we're right on the cusp. I'm retiring in three weeks, and I think we're right on the cusp of having the money to finish the renovation at the Fowler Branch Library in West Concord.
[17:23] No, I feel really, really good about the accomplishments here. I'm definitely ready to retire though. I've spent my whole adult life getting up on Monday morning and often not really having the whole weekend off because of events that are here. And so I'm wondering what it's going to be like to wake up and think, maybe I'll go make a cup of coffee, or maybe not! Just is going to be astounding.
MK: Where was your home? Where did you raise your girls?
BP: Well we--. The--. As you can tell from the peregrinations before, the older daughter was born in Washington, D.C. in the--. We lived in the Virginia suburbs then, but I always worked in Washington, D.C., and she was born in Washington, D.C. The younger daughter was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We then moved to Charlottesville. The older daughter--. We lived there from 1971-1977, so the older daughter went, I think, from second grade into middle school in Charlottesville. The younger daughter really just went into the elementary grades there. And then for the rest of the time we've lived in Concord.
MK: And where in Concord?
[19:03] BP: Well, the man that, who I married was quite wealthy. And we lived initially in a large house on Nashawtuc Hill and then in a second very large house on Estabrook Road. And when that, it was clear that that wasn't going to work out, my daughter and I, we called it, ran away from home, to a small apartment on Lexington Road. And then now I own possibly the last unrenovated housing in an area of Concord called Conantum, which was, which itself is very interesting. And the archives have quite a good collection on that. That was initially an experiment between the MIT architecture and engineering components and a contractor they—not a contractor, really an entrepreneur that they found. And they bought this, what was then basically slightly forested farmland. And they built the first, what became tech-built houses. But they were experimenting with modular homes. So the people who still live there today who were part of this experiment back at the end of the '40s and the early '50s anticipating the, or responding to the Armed Forces coming home.
BP: Modular. They, the houses all had the same components. They just were in different configurations. So, and they laugh and they say, "For different, for 100 extra dollars they could have a second floor, or a third floor, or a garage, or whatever the--." Today, those sound like very slight amounts of money, but for them they were--. And they were sold largely to assistant professors at MIT. So several Nobel Prize winners have lived there. And it's a very--. It's a community. To this day it has very organized 4th of July and Christmas and other ritual events. And there's a lot of joint child rearing in the sense that the kids all grow up together. And there's quite a bit of common land, so there's places for them to go and play in areas that seem more secure to their parents.
MK: So these, this modular architecture was kind of cutting edge for its time?
[22:03] BP: Oh yeah. It was--. I believe they were the first modular houses in the United States. And to this day you'll hear somebody describe a house as a tech-built house. They're quite recognizable. They also used passive solar. So they had projecting A-frame top roofs, although they were not A-frame structures. And the eves were calculated so that sun came in in the winter and not in the summer. And they were sided on relatively small, acre, acre and a half properties in ways that made you feel like you were all by yourself out in the woods. They were very controversial when they moved into Concord. You can imagine this was a very well-established community and they were pretty sure those were Socialists over there in the woods. And there wasn't a huge Jewish population in Concord then, and many of the people who bought over there were professors, and consequently many of them were Jewish. And so it was sort of startling, I think, to Concord residents. But then the people there were very, became very active on school committees and on town committees, and to this day there's a very high participation there in town affairs. And I have to say it's a wonderful place to live. And it was a wonderful place for my kids.
MK: How many houses or dwellings? Or how many families? I mean is it hundreds?
[23:44] BP: I think--.
MK: Or thousands, or--?
BP: No, no, no. no. I think it's seventy-five, somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred. Then there were some houses that were built later on the periphery that sort of are included. But I doubt more than 100. It's a--. It really is the--. I'm trying to think about this. Other than the people who live in the centers, like West Concord Center, or Concord Center, it's the largest contiguous area that has this feel of a community, sort of a sub-community. Everybody knows pretty much everybody that lives there. New people move in and your house is still described as the original owner's house. So there's a lot of history that is still pretty accessible there.
MK: Sounds like it would make a good interviewing project.
[25:45] BP: Well there has been--. They have done some oral histories of the old, of the old residents. And as I said I think they have a pretty good collection. At one point it was its own water district. And they have quite--. The archives have very good records of the project and of the people that were involved with it I think.
MK: Speaking of oral history projects, this library has had quite a, quite an oral history project going on over how long a time? A decade?
BP: No. Way longer than that. They first--. The first oral history project that I know of began at, in 1770—[Corrects herself]1975, for the anniversary of the Revolution. I think that's right, because--. Either that or there's also a town--. Let's see. The town was founded in 1635, so fifty would be eighty. Anyway, by the time I came here in 1977, to this library, there was an oral history project underway having to do with one of those anniversaries. And Renee Garelick who started the oral history project and to whom you are the successors, was one of the two original interviewers and had had some training in, at Columbia in oral history techniques.
[26:53] She--. That first compilation of oral histories was called Strawberries and Streetcars. And it was a, about Concord. It was very focused on Concord history, on Concord agriculture and the people who could still remember that. And it also had a secondary focus on ethnic groups that came here. So they're not so much the old families, as they call them, but the Irish immigration and the Italian immigration, the Scandinavian immigration, and Italian. There were fairly large representatives of those communities still available, of the original communities, most of which had come in the late 1800s.
[27:46] So then Renee continued to do it. When I came back as Library Director she asked me if the library would take it over It had been under the Historical Commission before that and there was some conflict there. And so we took it over and got a line in the town budget and never looked back. So we've been doing at least ten interviews I think every year, at least since I've been back as Director, which was 1991. And I think quite a few before that. Also Renee did some contract work. For instance Emerson Hospital I guess funded her, and she did a whole series called, again, which was published, called On Call, about the doctors, and the medical community, and the forming of Emerson Hospital and that kind of thing.
[28:45] She was very good at going to local companies and getting funding to do oral histories of those companies, which wouldn't be so interesting, except that because Lincoln Lab was over at Hanscom Airforce Base during World War Two, and did a lot of War research, a lot of companies came out of that research. So the people, the guys that worked there would then go off and start their own company. So Mitre Corporation, and Teradyne, and Raytheon, and Draper Lab, which I think is still part of MIT, all were offshoots of that. And so that was a pretty rich vein to mine. And then she continued with the local farmers.
[29:45] We tried to have cords of interviews that built on each other. So--. I'm trying to think of some of the others. Clearly now the built landscape is one of the things we're asking you to focus on. And that's pretty much how it has gone.
MK: So how did the built landscape come to be chosen as a--?
BP: Well, you know, one of the—
MK: --as an overarching theme?
BP: One of the things that we had collected were people perforce because they were important people in town. We had a lot of material about families that had given land to the town. And we, because it's Concord, we had a lot of Thoreauvians. And we had a lot of people who were sort of on the good side of--! You know, the tree huggers. And it seemed to me that we really needed to get some representation from the people who actually built houses and lived here and had some, some, get some support for the fact that people need a place to live. And better or worse land use is an important thing. And Concord actually was one of the first towns that had zoning and gave quite careful thought to land use and to mixed use, and to not abandon its downtown, and to not allow its downtown to become a row of fast food places. And so that was the impetus actually to try to start to talk about the built landscape, as opposed to the saved, unblemished landscape.
[32:05] CK: Although you've mixed that quite a bit. Peter Alden this morning. Marian Thornton.
BP: Well I think the good thing is, it is a mix. I mean in Concord there are tensions around this issue. And we needed both sides. So we're not slighting the, Marian Thornton, or we have maybe ten or twelve people whose oral histories we already have who have worked with Marian in the Concord Conservation Trust, or are, like Peter, particularly invested naturalists. We have quite a few of those as well. And they have frequently been on boards. And we have a lot of information about the boards and about the studies that those boards have done.
[33:05] But I think our hope is to also add some of the voices for people who, one way or another, acquired a huge plot of land that they had some choices about what they wanted to do with, and some inducement to make a profit off of it, and then to sort of understand how they proceeded with that.
One of the striking things about Concord is that you keep seeing, if you go back into the '60s or the '50s even, you see projections of population that have us at 30,000 twenty-five years ago, or at 50,000 now. But actually the population of unincarcerated Concordians has not ever exceeded 16,000. So even though there is what you would call development, it has not appreciably enlarged the population of the town.
MK: Huh. Nobody else has said that. That's interesting.
[34:18] CK: Yeah, what do you mean?
MK: Well the projections were that it would grow much more than it has.
BP: Oh, right. The projections were that it--. The projections that I know for sure, one in the early—late '50s or early '60s was for 30,000 by 1975. And it just didn't happen. Some of it is that you have--. Few people have more than two children now, whereas then people had lots of children. Or more often people had more than two children. You've got some huge houses that are very thinly inhabited now. So land has not--. Land has been used, but it's--. The population really hasn't increased very much.
MK: Around 16, 17,000.
[35:21] BP: Yeah. Typically the population of the prisons is about 1,000, couple hundred.
MK: And that's counted.
BP: Oh yeah. Because you get reimbursed per capita for a lot of things, so you're highly induced to count those capitas.
CK: But the 16,000 you said was unincarcerated.
BP: Yeah. Somewhere between 15 and 16 is unincarcerated. And then the other--. We've also had some oral histories on the prisons. The prisons are also sort of interesting, and Concord's attitude toward the prisons is interesting. We once had a prisoner who ran for Selectman.
MK: From inside?
BP: From inside! Didn't win, but he gave it a good shot. And I think he then, once he got out, ran off with the Lincoln librarian, so! You know, anyway, it's interesting that such a, upper-middle-class suburb has incarcerated members. Sorry, upper-middle-class community has incarcerated members. But there's very good support for--. There are a lot of prison programs. Lot of tutoring, stuff like that.
MK: Well, if it didn't meet projected estimates, how has it changed over the years that you've known it?
BP: Well I think one thing that most people would say is there's hardly a useful shop downtown, unless you're really into very high end clothing and jewelry and crafts and things like that. So I think most Concordians do their real shopping in West Concord or someplace else. The bookstore is still there and still thriving, and that's wonderful. The restaurants have improved substantially, and there are more of them.
[37:52] It has retained its character by and large, except that those, the very high end shops that sort of come and go, depending on the fashions of the day. There used to be a 5 and 10 cents store downtown next to the post office, and that's gone. But there is a 5 and 10 cents store in West Concord. There used to be a shoe repair place downtown. That's--. There's one in West Concord. There used to be a place where you could actually buy useful clothing for your kids downtown. There is one now, but it's very, very spendy. And most people don't buy their kids clothes there except for a present, or something like that.
[38:51] There's several banks. And those sort of come and go. Two of them are quite enduring though. The Harvard--. What's now Bank of America and Cambridge Trust have been here for quite a while. Vanderhoof's Hardware Store has been here for a long time, but I think it's threatened now by an Ace Hardware Store up in the shopping center next to the grocery store. You could probably do a whole oral history on the willingness to give out more liquor licenses or not. But there are more of those than there were a while ago. That's about what I can think of.
MK: Judith Walpole suggested that along with this kind of Yuppifying of the village, that land values had increased to the point where people born in the town were having a hard time being able to stay here.
BP: Yeah, that's--. Well and more to the point, their children.
BP: That's absolutely true. The last affordable housing, by the time my children's cohort hit the market, was West--. There were some small houses in West Concord that some of them bought and have substantially altered now. But mostly they're either living out further in Littleton or someplace like that, or they're living in further, in Cambridge and Somerville. And it's not just Concord. Every place has experienced that. So whereas Somerville used to be not a particularly desirable place, a lot of them have went initially there and then bought big houses and made them so expensive that now the next cohort can't buy them! Charlestown the same thing happened. South Boston the same thing happened. I'm sure Roxbury is under pressure. The parts of Dorchester that are adjacent to more desirable places, it's just a phenomena that's universal I think. I grew up in New Jersey, and my friends in New Jersey's kids are living in places that our parents would just be aghast at, like Secaucus, and Jersey City, and Newark, and Hoboken. And those have become sort of high end, desirable places to live, whereas that wasn't the case when we were young.
[41:59] So in a way it's good. It rehabilitates old neighborhoods and forces kids to think about something other than living their parents' lives.
MK: Umm. What else about the town?
BP: Well, you know I think probably politically it has changed. I believe when I first came here that its reputation was as being Republican. And it's quite solidly Democratic now. So some of that is generational. Some of that is the children who went off to Ivy League colleges in the '60s and '70s and were radicalized I guess and then came back. But a lot of it's the parents. I mean I lead a book discussion group of people mostly retired. And their opinions were startling to me. I mean there were issues--. You know, when you discuss great literature you inevitably have to grapple with some sort of dicey issues. And they never looked back. You know they just went right ahead. So they're not necessarily representative of the town, but they certainly are a group whose thinking was quite flexible I guess you would say.
[43:46] So I think that in a way the whole country--. There are issues like, for instance my husband's having been gay, which my children were quite careful about when they were growing up here. They had friends who knew about this, but it wasn't something that they felt completely comfortable talking about. You know, I run into people older than me who talk about their gay sons and their partners all the time. And so that clearly has changed, not just in Concord, but nationally.
[44:33] The role of women in town has changed. There--. I don't think Judy Walpole was the first female Selectwoman. We have the oral history of the two women that were, or three women who were her predecessors. But at one point all the Selectmen were women! So that changed. It just is just like every place else. Concord's a pretty good litmus I think really, of what's going on in the rest of the world. Also the--. Concord sort of self-selects, because if you want to--. If you're wealthy enough to buy a house in Concord, which is a big if right off the bat, you have choices of far more self-conscious communities. You can move to Wellesley, or Weston, or Newton, or whatever. You choose Concord for a different reason. And one of the reasons is the fact that the commuter line goes directly to Cambridge, so there's a Concord-Cambridge nexus that is obvious. But it goes through Weston, so if you really wanted a big, Georgian spread, you could move to Weston and be three stops closer to Cambridge.
[46:30] Most of the people--. Lots of people say they move here because of the library. I mean they come in, and it just bespeaks what the town values. And the kind of programming we do is responsive to that. So I think in some sense Concord will continue to recruit people who are interested in cultural things, who are interested in an intellectual life, who don't want a high society. There--. You have access to two country clubs. One is the Nashawtuc Country Club, which is quite country clubbish, and then there's the Concord Country Club, which is this funky little house over on a golf course. The golf course I think is not world-renowned, won't ever have a big event at it. But that's actually considered a more desirable club to belong to, because it's funky. It's old.
MK: And old line? More old line? I mean--.
BP: No, not necessarily. Like--.
MK: I mean there must be--.
MK: There must be a large population of sort of neuvo riche people with lots of money and--.
BP: Yeah, they--. They probably would like the Nashawtuc Country Club. And maybe not. But there isn't--. I mean that's sort of--. Neuvo riche is riding under heavy disguise here. I remember when--. I have since lived with somebody for twenty years and I remember the first time I took him to the grocery store here. He was from Cambridge. And he-. We were walking around, and people--. I knew a lot of people, and so people would come up and we'd talk, and finally he said to me, "Do Concordians purposely select their grubbiest, worst clothes to go to the grocery store in?" And I said, "I don't know. I never thought about it."
[48:36] You know, but there's--. But there's a level of anti-demonstrating your wealth going on here, a sort of reverse, reverse--
BP: --reverse snobbery. Patched jeans are--. You have to have a good car, but not an ostentatious car. A Volvo is okay, a--. You know, it has to be a--. I'm sure there are thousands of Priuses or whatever those are. I'm still driving Dad's old Buick, but there's a sort of a reverse ostentation here that's considered trendy. Sort of reminded me, because we were in Ann Arbor in the '60s, and we had a certain amount of high reputation because we truly had the clunkiest car on campus. You know, that was considered a good thing then, so there's a bit of that going on here. Judy didn't tell you about that, huh?
MK: Well, no, we didn't get into that exactly. No. I can't imagine what kind of a car she drives.
BP: Oh, I'm sure it's modest.
BP: Modest! We all have modest cars. Not--. We don't all have modest cars, but that's what--.
MK: What about Concord's connection to American history and its place as kind of an icon of a new revolutionary spirit and the real makings, the real foundations of the cornerstone of American political action and thought and literature and--?
BP: Well Abby Hoffman came here and demonstrated in, on the 200th anniversary of the Concord Revolution, so we--. And we allowed him to. So! So there's a lot of support for dissidents here. Town Meeting has its resident dissidents who come every time. And I think we'd all be bored to tears without them. So that tradition carries on. Our children are pretty bored with it, that and the Transcendentalists. "Oh please. No more of that." But in their heart of hearts they're proud of it, and of course so are most Concordians. We just don't talk about it much. It's considered a little--.
MK: But it's there. It's a factor.
[51:42] BP: Oh, yeah. It's there. You take your guests to the North Bridge, and I always repeat to them almost--. The first time I heard it I think I almost cried. Someone who gave a speech there said that, "On April 19th the order to fire was given to Englishmen. Americans responded." And I just thought that captured the whole thing right there.
MK: . . . .
BP: It was that that was the turning point, that that was the us/them moment, because they were advancing on the Minute Men. They had loaded muskets, as opposed to Lexington, where they didn't have weapons.
MK: The British? Oh, the Americans.
BP: The Americans didn't. There had not been any shots fired. The British started to tear up the bridge, so that the men couldn't get back, and they could see that the town was burning where their families were and their homes were. And so the order to fire was given, and they responded, and it was at that moment that they ceased to be Englishmen and became Americans. So we all have little things like that that we tell visitors and are proud of.
MK: That is really touching.
[53:24] I've never heard it put quite that way.
BP: Well it was--. I believe it was a Governor who--. It was not--. It was like a Governor in the 1970s or something like that. And someone told me about it. And I just thought, "Oh my God, that just captures it right there. That's what that--. That's the useful thing to say about that moment at the bridge," because there's, of course, a lot of conflict between Lexington and Concord about where the Revolution started and what, who has what right, who has what bragging rights.
MK: But this was a real defining moment.
BP: Right. You know, there had been violence in Boston. People had thrown--. Crispus Attucks and other people had--. There was the Boston Massacre. But again, they threw stones and snowballs I think. This was the first real equal confrontation. Turned out to be an unequal confrontation, but they didn't know that when they fired. I think the other part, the Transcendentalist legacy, is in some ways more really persisting. Certainly Thoreau's legacy is felt wide and large. I always thought it was interesting when I was, lived in Charlottesville, Jefferson and Madison were dredged up to support almost any undertaking in town. You had to have your Jefferson or Madison quote. And here we have a range of options, but [laughs] people always do look for that quote or support. I personally never submit a grant to NEH or NHPRC or anybody else without something like that up at the top. So we know that we have that and we're very proud of it.
[55:41] MK: Let me ask a question about oral history archives and ask you--. You described in some detail what's in the archive here and Renee's work and how it all got started. How is it used, and who uses it, and what for?
BP: Well we're trying to sort that out. We have started to post them online, the transcripts. And in theory those should be Bullion searchable through Google. And then there are descriptors. I notice that Carrie's writing down what I'm guessing will become some topics that we might use to describe them. So they're catalogued like regular, any kind of regular material. The oral part of it is a little harder to, harder to master. And I'm hoping the day will come when you can just click on it and you'll hear the person's voice. We have the--. Technically you can do that now.
BP: Yeah. And we have the, all the tapes in pretty good shape. But that's going to take more funding and more work and be down the road. But I think that'll be interesting, although frankly I'm guessing people will search the texts rather than listen to the tapes for a long time.
MK: But it is getting some reasonably heavy use?
[57:35] BP: Yeah. In fact we could find that out, because we know what gets hit on the website. And I have been sort of involved in wrapping up everything else, so I haven't asked about that in a long time, but that information's available. You can get programs that will tell you exactly how many people go to what page of what file, so that it's easily discernable. Do you find that there are other projects where they're accessing them online in streaming audio?
CK: There are some great examples of that. I keep a file on them.
BP: I think that--.
MK: Give her one or two.
CK: I can't off the top of my head. There are so many. I always keep them when they come through on the listservs. But you were probably thinking about other forms of accessibility to build a conversation, because we sit here--. I don't know if this is appropriate to record all this or not. But maybe it is.
BP: Sure. I'm the boss!
CK; We hear developers. We hear librarians. We hear open space advocates. We hear naturalists. And we think, where would the world be if everyone could hear one another, if the people speaking and the broader community could hear—
MK: --what we've heard.
MK: It's staggering.
CK: Synthesized. I mean our style is to try to synthesize it so that people--. It would be short enough clips that people would hear, and to synthesize a conversation that sometimes doesn't take place, because the discussion is too polarized, or for all sorts of reasons, logistics. Because people are so comfortable sitting in their own space really being listened to. And I just--. Maybe I'm naÃ¯ve--.
BP: I think. No, I think that would be great. I mean I think that's one of the things that we could do with these tapes. It's just--. This is one of the things that is so fabulous about being a public library Director is that you have all these possibilities in front of you. It's just a bully pulpit. And so you can convene them all. We can convene a panel, and people can come and talk about things. We--. You can just do lots and lots of things.
CK: I meant an audio version.
BP: Yeah. You could compile, so that everybody could listen to what the developer said, and the tree hugger said, and the naturalist said—
MK: As though they were sitting—
BP: As though they were sitting and talking to each other.
MK: Umm hmm.
[1:00:43] BP: And then maybe they would listen, because they wouldn't be thinking in their mind, "I'm going to respond to that." They would be actually listening. Yeah. I think that has real power. We just have to figure out how to do it.
MK: And to hear your own voice, and your own point of view, and your own perspective in the context of other views.
BP: Right. Enmeshed in that.
BP: Yeah. No, that sounds great. I think I'll suggest that to the next Director, because I mean truly one of the things that is overwhelming is all the things you could do, all the things you should get done. And the fact that you have to pick all the time and are always balancing all of these potential wonderful things is sort of an embarrassment of riches. And Concord is sort of an embarrassment of riches, because you're--. You have colleagues who are having to close their branches and who have, you know, nobody takes out anything but bestsellers and DVDs. And here we have people who--. We circulate more nonfiction that fiction. That's astounding. So it's a town that just loves, loves, loves its library. People love to come in and just browse and think, "Oh, I could take this book out. I don't have to pay for it; I could take it out. And I don't have to read the whole thing. I can just sort of think about these issues for a while." And those are just little examples of all the things that you could do as a Library Director. And picking and choosing amongst them is exhausting! So. That's why I'm ready to retire.
[1:02:44] CK: You could call it Talking Across the Lines, a discussion across different perspectives. How will you pass on your vision, particularly of the oral history project?
BP: I think that really my staff has internalized it. I'm not going to pass anything on. I probably will not meet very often with the new Director. But they--. Leslie is the keeper of oral, the oral histories and what happens next with that. And there are 1,000 other programs that the children's staff, or the young adult staff, or the branch staff, or the reference librarians are all working on themselves. I really have backed out the last year and waited to see what would happen, and it's wonderful. I mean they just are not looking back! So I think that it's safe in the hands of the staff.
[1:03:48] And the other really wonderful thing is that they bounce off of each other. They work really, really well together. And when they've got a problem, one of them doesn't try to solve it herself or himself. They go find two or three other people whose opinion they would value on this, and they solve it together. So I'm heartened with all of that. So Leslie just needs--. Funding of course is always going to be a struggle. But the town is pretty much committed to that line in the library budget, so it would take a lot to erase that now I think. And so at very least the program itself is secure for a while.
CK: It has been four interviews a year up until this year . . . ten.
BP: No, it was because you--. No, because you came in halfway through the year, and it had been used. It's $5,000. So it's approximately $500 an interview, right? Yeah, so it's 1,000. So that's ten. It may--. But we had used up a lot of the money when Renee died to be sure we had machine-readable transcripts. So we spent most of the money the year that you started getting machine-readable transcripts, because we didn't have any for the early interviews, and they had to be scanned and then cleaned up. And that took most of the money. In fact we overspent that year, because we had to clean up the back file.
MK: What else have we missed? What else do you want to talk about for another five or ten minutes?
[1:05:55] BP: I can't think of anything, to tell you the truth.
MK: You've been so cogent, heartfelt about all this. It's great.
CK: Your views--. Oftentimes when people think about oral histories they think about that one giant who's from the town, and a life story interview. And in your description of possible interviewing or oral history projects, seems that you really incorporate this sense of looking at conflict or divergent views and use oral history that way. Is that correct? How do you think about oral history projects?
[1:06:40] BP: Well I don't think particularly of conflict, but I do think that-. I think of it as part of the archives. So what I think of it as is the whole picture of Concord that we're building down there. I mean we didn't stop getting materials in the mid-1880s or the late second half of the 18th century. We—We're still collecting all the time. When people, kids come home to close their parents' house, they find letters and wills and all kinds of things which they bring us. So it's--. It will only survive to the extent that it's forward looking. So what I'm looking for with oral histories is to build the missing pieces, the things that aren't so obvious. So that's one of the reasons to focus on slightly dissident voices in the built landscape, because in fact zoning and building and--. Concord has an Historic District Commission which is the bane of every homeowner and institution owner within that District. I used to have to go before them to try to get the elevator clearance so that I could have an elevator to the art gallery. And the head of the Trustees and I would go to those hearings and then repair to the Colonial Inn to drink afterwards, [laughs] because they were so, so annoying.
[1:08:25] So there is implicit in land use dissident views about how it should be used. So that particularly lends itself to conflict. But we-. I don't know that we otherwise have focused so much on conflict. We've sort of tried to have themes.
CK: Divergent. You just picked some interesting examples in the course of the day even, that would make an interesting project.
BP: Right. We--.
CK: . . . a very broad view.
BP: We just try to--. But of course the whole point of oral histories is to get the particular. You don't--. You've got the general theme, but what you want is the nitty gritty detail. So that's that reason to do that. But I think in general, Special Collections needs to keep going too and needs to keep identifying themes that come forward in history. And of course they're endless. So your work will be endless.
MK: And we hope your retirement is endless . . . .
BP: Oh, me too. I just can hardly wait! I just can so hardly wait, it's--. I'm counting the days, because I've worked full time all my life. I just can't imagine what it's like to get up in the morning and not have somebody else, somebody else's need hanging over me. So this'll be great.
MK: Potential for that second [cup of coffee]—
CK: . . . a mother and a wife.
MK: Potential for that second [cup of coffee]—
[1:10:12] BP: And a daughter. My father's 102, and he lives over in Newbury Court, which is a retirement place in Concord. He's very independent, but would still like you to come to dinner every night, because he doesn't want to go sit at the gentleman's table. Stuff like that. And I think those pictures'll be great. [Carrie has been photographing Barbara.] I don't need to go outside [to be photographed.]
CK: . . .
MK: You need a picture of the library, right in front of the--.
CK: We're developing a whole wall of mug shots outside.
BP: Oh, good. Well they--.
MK: And then we're going to hang them in the post office.
BP: [Laughs] Now that's something I haven't done. Crime! I don't know if you want this. Maybe we should turn the tape off.
MK: Thank you very much.
CK: I was--. Can I ask one more on—
CK: --on tape? You talked about people's willingness to talk about traditionally taboo subjects and their gay kids. But I was wondering about gay life in Concord.
BP: Well, there's Spectrum at the high school, which is a club for gay kids. There are people that we all know who live around town who are well-known. Gregory McGuire and his partner live here in town. They're probably the most notorious, not notorious, but the well-known--.
MK: Most visible and out.
BP: Most visible and out.
[1:11:55] But it really was a subject that--. There were people that you knew were gay, and it was never a very big deal in town. It certainly wasn't--. There wasn't any organized or disorganized upset or opposition to them, other than what society itself was contributing to that. So I would say that it was always--. And New England ha--. You know, you have only to look at the five states that now have gay marriage and where they're clustered [in New England]. So I think it just was always this rich tradition of what was your business and what wasn't your business. And--. I will tell you one story for the tape which is pretty indicative.
[1:13:05] When I came back as--.When I first moved here, the wife of a wealthy person living in a spiffy house, I began working here as very quickly the Assistant Director. And there was a conflict about--. They wanted to open on Sundays, and they wanted to require the regular staff to work those hours. And I had briefly had another job, and I knew from that other job that this would go to a court case, and they would lose. They couldn't really require that. So I asked the then Director if I could speak to several of the people on the Library Committee, which is the Town Board about this, and perhaps we could develop a compromise where the regular staff would agree to train some part-time people to do it. And so they would work for straight pay on Sundays for three or four months, and they would train people.
[1:14:15] And we had that meeting. And everybody agreed that was how that should be. And as the people left, one woman who was very well known in town asked me how I liked Concord. And I said, "Well, so far I really like Concord pretty much." And she said, "Tell you one thing about Concord, you can do as you damn please." So I did.
And I think that's true. You can't do as you damn please if you hurt somebody else, or if you're mean or ungenerous. But as far as your own life, you can lead it according to your own light--
MK: Live out your dream.
BP: --lights, with very little social opposition.
CK: Are there social gathering places for gay people. . . ?
BP: No, I think most of those--. Well, in people's houses. I mean they're included as part of the social mix of the town, so--. And really in the next generation it's--. One of my friends--. Because of my husband, and because I know what he went through as a gay man growing up in the South, and he was Southern, and how difficult that was, everybody knows that I particularly pay attention to this issue.
[1:15:41] And somebody repeated to me a, something that her son heard, her high school son, or actually even early college son had said, which was when they--. In California there was all this brouhaha, and they reversed the finding. And the son said, "Why would anybody care?" And he was truly perplexed. That's a kid who grew up here. And he was truly perplexed, because he hadn't run into people discriminating that way. So.
MK: He was a gay kid?
BP: No, he wasn't gay.
MK: No, he was straight.
BP: He was just a regular kid, just a straight kid.
MK: "Why would anybody care?"
BP: "Why would anybody care? "You know, "What?" So I think that New England has always been that way. Okay?
BP: Okay. You're welcome. Now I can go to the dentist.