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These are not unprecedented times

Photo courtesy of Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

The Kellogg-Hubbard Library reflects on quarantine orders from more than a century ago

Just over one hundred years ago, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library had to close its doors because of two epidemics.  The first was in 1917, and the epidemic was polio. Montpelier children came under a quarantine order on June 24, 1917, restricting them to home. But as the cases of poliomyelitis grew, further restrictions were imposed on public gathering places, and the library closed its book room for the months of July, August, and September. While closed, staff used the time to inventory the shelves, mend books, and tend to other tasks that were not often done when the library was running as usual.  

When the quarantine was lifted in October, the Kellogg Hubbard reopened and daily circulation was so high that even with the three-month shutdown, overall circulation surpassed that of the previous year. All books returning from infected families were burned. In the minutes from the annual meeting held February 5, 1918, Evelyn S. Lease, Librarian, hoped that the coming year would be uninterrupted.

The poliovirus scare abated in the winter of 1917-1918 and World War I continued. Librarian Evelyn Lease’s hope for the work of 1918 to be uninterrupted would not come to pass. That fall brought the flu epidemic and the Montpelier area was hit hard.  According to the Montpelier Evening News on September 27, 1918, “Every stone shed, in fact, every industrial and office plant in the city (Montpelier) has been hit by the epidemic.”  Once again, all public meeting places were told to close. Middlebury College was quarantined, UVM postponed opening for the term, the Vermont Supreme Court canceled altogether and the Library closed its doors again for the month of October. Historic Roots magazine, in an article written in its April 1998 edition, reported that the Kellogg-Hubbard Library set up a nursery to care for the children of the sick and dead. 

Minutes from the Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s Annual Meeting on February 4, 1919, have an interesting passage written by Evelyn S. Lease: “The blank on the October page of the record book bears witness to the closing of the library during the influenza epidemic.  At that time the basement was made headquarters for the work of the Relief Committee and was the rallying place for volunteers in that timely service to our community. All this goes to prove that the library like other live institutions has been called to unaccustomed duties, emphasized new values, and attained a broader horizon as a result.”  

On March 16, 2020, the Kellogg-Hubbard closed its doors to the public as cases of COVID-19 grew around the state.  At first, curbside pick-up of books was allowed but by March 23, this was restricted, too. With the library closed to the public, the staff was sent to work from home on projects ranging from enhancing digital services, holding storytimes and programs online, organizing archival information to answering patron questions remotely. Staff meetings were held online.   

As Vermont cautiously starts reopening, we can remember that this is not the first time we have faced difficult times. One hundred years ago, people struggled through the war, the quarantining of children, public lockdowns, and the Spanish Flu epidemic.  The good news then was that by the time the war ended on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, the flu had subsided enough that Montpelier could celebrate the end of the war with a street parade.  Three months later, that strain of flu had just about disappeared from the state.  Though there would continue to be polio outbreaks for years, eventually there would be a vaccine that would prove successful. There were better days ahead one hundred three years ago. We are in the darkness now, but just as before, surely, the dawn will follow.  And this beloved institution, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, will continue to be here through it all.