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A Small Lbrary on the United States-Canada Border

A Small Lbrary on the United States-Canada Border

The Haskell Library stands in two countries, with one foot in the United States and the other in Canada.

Step inside Haskell Library and you’ll easily think of it as a typical American small town library.

Of course this one is a little more elegant, with original woodwork dating from 1905 and upholstered reading chairs, but it’s still a library like any other.

Immediately, questions arose.

Why do librarians easily switch between English and French? Why do these stacks contain so many books on French-Canadian history? And the most confusing thing is, what are the black lines that cross the surface of the floor?

It turns out that Haskell is a different library from other libraries. Standing on two countries, with one foot in the United States and the other in Canada.

A black line across the floor – in the form of duct tape – marks the international border, separating the towns of Derby Line, Vermont from Stanstead, Quebec.

The front door, community bulletin board and children’s books are on the United States side; the remainder of the collection and reading room are on the Canadian side.

The duct tape looked worn. No wonder – it’s a never-ending source of attention. Not an hour had passed, said Nancy Rumery, library director, from the time visitors posed for photos with the line.

They pose with various facial expressions, or while marching on the duct tape. They posed with Flat Stanley, a paper poster of a character in a children’s story book.

Some families queued on both sides of the line, others in decreasing order.

Recently, Rumery has discovered something even stranger: some visitors seem to freeze in front of the black lines, as if emitting an invisible force field.

They had seen an internet rumor stating that crossing the line was illegal. In fact, it is actually recommended.

The library relishes its role as a kind of free trade zone for people, an oasis from a border that, while unlike Korea’s demilitarized zone, is no longer the free zone it was just a few decades ago.

So why are they so fascinated by the lines of harmless black duct tape?

Borders always interest us. There’s something about the separation between two worlds that is intriguing, and terrifying.

Let’s face it, borders can be scary. They hint at darkness and danger on the other side. That’s what makes the Haskell Library so refreshing. The library refused to let those fears go.

“A line on a map that divides us should divide us,” said Canadian Hal Newman.

“But that’s what makes Haskell so spectacular. Yes, a border that runs through the middle, actually brings people together. Fantastic, right?”

Newman is the former director of the adjacent Haskell Opera House, which also sits on the border.

He called it the ‘impossible room’, because it was impossible for such a place to exist.

The stage is in Canada, while the chairs are in America. The fact that borders run between some of the seats marks Haskell as “the only opera house in the world where you can have one cheek on either side of the border,” he said.

This was by design, not a coincidence.

The Haskell family purposely built a library and opera house along the border, more than a century ago, with the aim of promoting cross-border interaction and friendship.

Managing a bi-national company is “very complicated,” said Rumery, who, although Canadian, uses the word ‘we’ when referring to both Canadians and Americans.

There are competing international exchange rates (the library accepts both currencies; there are no fines, but they sell postcards and other mementos); and two sets of safety rules (the library uses which rules are strictest).

Going to lunch requires crossing at an international border (easier to order delivery).

Rumery had to negotiate not only with readers hunting for Stephen King’s latest novel, but also with, among others, the Canadian Police, the US State Department, and the International Boundary Commission.

When 15 years ago the library wanted to install a new lift, the lift was in Canada, but to get the crane, which was in the United States to the other side, even for just a few hours, meant paying for heavy equipment.

The solution? Leave the crane in American land space, and lift the lift to hover over Canadian airspace.

“Sometimes I wish I worked in a regular old library,” says Rumery, but the mischievous gleam in her eye gives away the secret. He was just joking. He wouldn’t want to work anywhere else anywhere.

The library is more than just a geographic curiosity; in an era of geopolitical tensions and deadlocked talks, it is a reminder that borders are human-created fictions; and the limits and threats they pose become reality when we see them as threats.

I’ve visited this stretch of the border for years.

The cottage I rented with Canadian friends was a form of compromise; it’s in Vermont, but so close to Canada, that you can walk there, which is exactly what I did this summer.

I also drive and bike across borders, every time I duly report to the United States and Canadian customs and immigration offices.

But, one fine morning, I decided to do something different.

I hopped in a kayak and paddled over the border, a boundary marked only by a small white obelisk perched atop a small island in the middle of Lake Memphremagog.

I know what I did was wrong, but it was also fun.

There’s something challenging about crossing an international border stealthily, even something as seemingly innocuous as the United States-Canada border.

I regret the Treaty of Westphalia, a treaty in the 17th century that created the concept of the modern state that applies to this day.

The border is not a static place, but changes according to the atmosphere on one or even two different sides of the border line.

Major changes to crossing activity at this sleepy border occurred after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Roads across the border are closed to traffic.

Large potted plants were installed in front of the library, a barrier that would have been unimaginable on September 10th. Now, a US State Department vehicle is parked outside the library entrance 24 hours a day.

However, the biggest change has been the flow of asylum seekers – known as ‘northbounders’ – from the United States to Canada.

“I remember one day I saw a van approaching on the road on the United States side, and this family got out and ran across the border,” Newman recalled.

“It was minus 20 degrees Celsius outside, and the kids were wearing flip-flops. I’ll never forget that.”

People separated by borders meet in libraries, embracing each other among the books of Philip Roth and Robertson Davies.

For residents who have lived here for a long time, the strength of frontier nostalgia continues.

They reminisce about the days of being able to cross the border without any effort at all, or when border officers knew your name and waved at you with a smile.

Or a time when you didn’t have to think twice about crossing the border to get a slice of pizza, when life was better.

“I’ve had as many Canadian friends as American friends,” said Buzzy Roy, a pharmacist at Brown’s Drug Store on Derby Line.

“You don’t think about whether they’re Canadian or American. They’re just friends. In our minds, the border doesn’t exist.”

Today, the two towns still share a water system but, apart from fond memories, not much else.

The library and adjoining opera house are the last places where residents usually interact.

Roy’s Pharmacy occupies a precarious position, like a no-man’s land between the United States and Canada.

Cars entering from Canada have to travel about 100 meters before approaching United States customs and immigration posts, meaning that even though they are on American soil, they have not officially entered the country.

This pharmacy stands at that distance. “It’s very confusing, very abnormal. You don’t see many borders like this,” he said, adding that occasionally people enter his shop not knowing which country they are in.

Derby Line, like many small towns, is economically ailing, as the billboards show.

Competition from big box stores is one of the sources of the problem, but so is the border, according to Roy. “Too much hassle for so little reward,” he said.

Sometimes border issues actually boost the local economy, sometimes they actually hurt the local economy. Borders are never neutral.

“I was aware there was a need to tighten oversight 30 or 40 years ago, but some of the things they did were really inconsequential,” said Brian Smith, a Vermont state representative who has lived almost his entire life on the Derby Line.

Smith tells a story about an 85-year-old Vermont man, who went to visit his Canadian girlfriend.

When he returned, the US State Department’s computer system was down , so the officer, who actually knew the man, forced him to wait an hour until it returned to normal.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” Smith said. “Canada is not our enemy.”

True, but in recent years, there are people who have tried to take advantage of this convenience.

In 2011, a Montreal man was arrested for allegedly smuggling a backpack full of weapons through a library toilet. (He was recently extradited to the United States to face trial there).

This surprised the library staff; “A violation of sacred space,” Newman said.

It also raises concerns that, in the current climate, the future of libraries is uncertain. However, to close the library would certainly be met with resistance, Smith predicted.

“You will see people’s anger,” he said. “On both sides of the border.”

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