Forum Puts Spotlight On Library Candidates

by Ryan Bray
The Friends of Snow Library hosted a forum April 24 for the four candidates seeking election to three seats on the library board of trustees in May. From left to right are Mark Ziomek, Betsy Sorensen, Cheryl Bryan and Jamie Balliett.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO The Friends of Snow Library hosted a forum April 24 for the four candidates seeking election to three seats on the library board of trustees in May. From left to right are Mark Ziomek, Betsy Sorensen, Cheryl Bryan and Jamie Balliett. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – All eyes will be on the Snow Library board of trustees in this month’s annual town election.

A forum was hosted by the Friends of Snow Library April 24, where the four candidates vying for three seats on the board answered questions and shared their thoughts on the library’s present and future.

“This is the first time ever we’ve had a contested election for trustees,” said Joan Francolini, who chairs the board of trustees. “It just shows the amount of support we have for the library, how much interest there is in the town.”

Incumbents Jamie Balliett and Mark Ziomek are each seeking re-election to new three-year terms. Challenging them are Betsy Sorensen and Cheryl Bryan, who is seeking to rejoin the board, having served two terms in the past.

Last week’s forum was moderated by Emily Miller and Martha Sherrill, who operate the online site Exit 89.

“The fact that we have four qualified people eager to hold this position demonstrates the growing sense of excitement that surrounds Snow Library and its future,” Miller said at the outset of the forum.

The spring race comes as the trustees, along with the nonprofit Friends group and the Snow Library feasibility task force, continue to plan and work toward the construction of a new library. The task force has worked with Oudens Ello Architecture of Boston on preliminary design options for a new 24,000-square-foot facility in the library’s current location on Main Street.

Asked why the library is important to them, Balliett recalled the thrill he would get as a child visiting the library to check out books. He said his time as a trustee has reinforced the important role that the library plays in fostering a sense of community and belonging in Orleans.

“I think that that’s really what this library is about,” he said. “It’s about making people feel good when they come into a facility.”

Bryan, a career librarian who previously served as director of both the Brewster Ladies’ Library and the Eastham Public Library, said as a child, libraries provided her “a window to a larger world.”

“I decided to be a librarian when I was still in school,” she said. “I have to say, I’m a zealot.”

Sorensen similarly recalled feeling a “sense of awe” visiting libraries as a child. But she noted that there’s something for everybody of all backgrounds and ages at the Snow Library. Her mother, who is 100, still frequents the library regularly, as does her 12-year-old grandson.

“As everyone is saying, everyone should feel welcome here,” she said. “This is an open door. This says a lot about our town, what our dreams are and about our history.”

Ziomek worked for more than three decades as a librarian before retiring to Orleans before the pandemic. He worked for the Library of Congress, where he was library director at the Holocaust Museum, and ended his career at the National Library of Medicine.

Upon moving to town, he became involved with the Friends, through which he came to learn more about Orleans and the library.

“We got to know people,” he said. “We got to know about the library, what people thought of the library, what the community was like.”

Bryan and Sorensen were each asked if they would be interested in serving second terms if elected this spring. Both said they would.

“It takes about a year to just find your way in and understand what’s needed,” Bryan said. “Then you start working your way into the organization and start doing the work.”

The topic of book banning was also brought up during the forum. Miller said in the last year, there were 37 challenges to books in schools or libraries across Massachusetts, with many of those titles related to LGBTQ+ issues and people of color.

Balliett called the growing trend toward book banning nationwide “very disturbing,” and said the trustees have been working in the past year to better prepare the library to respond to such challenges if they arise.

“The reality is the majority of us have to push back together against efforts to ban books,” he said. “This library has taken steps in the last year to be more prepared, and that’s the most important thing that we can do, is talk about it and educate each other about it and be very secure in our position that we’re an open community, and we want to be accepting and supporting of other people.”

Ziomek offered a personal perspective on the issue. He said as an “awkward, introverted teenager” having access to the books and materials that kids and teenagers have today could have helped him growing up.

“Hopefully by having access to those books, I would have learned how to talk openly with my parents, my brothers, my friends, my teachers, anyone about being gay,” he said.

Sorensen, meanwhile, called book banning a threat to people’s rights under the First Amendment.

“And that is a precious freedom that we all hold dear, and that we need to continue to hold dear and respect,” she said.

Libraries are spaces that encourage connectivity and openness between people of different backgrounds, Bryan said, Banning books, she said, runs counter to that inclusiveness.

“I think that the library is one of the few places where people can read about other people’s experiences and come to understand them better,” she said. “Banning books is a way of limiting that ability for people to find commonality with each other.”

Asked what he learned in his first three years as a trustee, Balliett said serving on the board reinforced what can be accomplished when people come together to work as a group, while also teaching him the importance of being able to multitask. For Ziomek, serving as a trustee taught him just how important a new library is to the people of Orleans.

“Of course loving the library doesn’t necessarily mean that people love the building. I learned that in my early days of being on the trustees. That was great to store in the back of my mind as I kept thinking ‘When are we going to get to start talking about a new library?’

Bryan was working as director when both the Brewster and Eastham libraries planned new facilities, and she spoke of the impact a modern facility can have on a community, especially for young children and teens.

“We want them to think that the library’s fun,” she said. “That’s what we can do for them, is create this love for exploration and learning from the time they’re young.”

For Balliett, the Eastham Library represents the facility that Orleans could have, and one that the community deserves. Eastham has defined spaces for children, teens, staff and public events. But the Snow Library lacks the space needed to allow for those different functions to coexist.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” he said. “It should be set up in a way that functions so that everyone can use it and people aren’t getting mad. And that’s really where my interest in moving ahead with a new library came from.”

Sorensen and Ziomek said that aesthetics are also important, saying a new building could put the right accent on the downtown area.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a corner in town that’s inspiring? That’s something that’s gone through my mind time and time again,” Ziomek said.

At the annual town meeting on May 13, voters will weigh in on a request for $150,000 to support plans for a new library. Approval of the funds would demonstrate town support for the project as the trustees and task force get set to apply for construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

But the grant is competitive, and Steve Gass, who chairs the task force, asked candidates if they would continue to support plans for a new library if the town misses out on the funding. That would require going to town meeting next spring with a request to fund the project in full.

Each candidate said they’d support the project with or without the grant, even if it might be a tougher sell to town voters.

“It’s with eyes wide open,” Sorensen said. “It is going to be a big task to get it moved forward, I would think.”

The annual town election is May 21 at the Orleans Senior Center. The last day to register to vote is May 10. In-person early voting will be held in town hall during business hours May 13 through May 17.

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