By Carol Vaughn
Cara Burton, the bridge-building, ever-smiling leader of the Eastern Shore’s regional library system, is closing the book on her career.
The director of the Eastern Shore Public Library and the Shore’s regional library system since January 2016, she led the library through the COVID-19 pandemic and the building of a new library in Parksley — the latter is still ongoing.
The library board of trustees will begin the search for a new director as soon as possible, according to a press release.
Burton said she plans to continue living on the Shore after retirement and to volunteer and enjoy “the Shore life.”
“Cara’s contributions to our library system are invaluable. While we reluctantly accept her decision, we wish her the best in her well-earned retirement. We are glad she is staying on the Shore,” said Joyce Holland, board of trustees chairperson.
Circulation increased 29% during Burton’s tenure, although she said this week the modern library “cannot be measured by library card registration, as many of our services do not require the use of a library card; nor does circulation adequately measure success as using the library does not always involve checking out a print” item.
“The value of the library and the changes taken place are measured in other ways, such as the partnerships we develop, the improvement in the quality of life of our residents, and even just a better awareness of what the public library offers, to name just a few,” Burton said, adding, “I feel successful if someone is now less afraid to come to the library; that it is less intimidating, but rather more welcoming.”
A Shore native
Burton, a Northampton County native, was raised in Nassawadox. She is the daughter of the late Drs. William and Mary Ann Burton and a graduate of Northampton High School.
She attended the College of William and Mary and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University, where she also earned a Masters in Library and Information Science degree.
Burton was a public library director in the Syracuse, N.Y., area more than 15 years and was executive director of the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History in Danville, Va., prior to returning to the Shore to accept the library director position.
Burton became director soon after the town of Parksley initiated the process of purchasing a former grocery store, with plans for it to be renovated and added on to to serve as the new regional library, replacing the 1965 building in Accomac.
A 2009 study found the Accomac building met just eight of 24 state standards for public libraries and that it was half the recommended size for the population it serves.
In 2018, library trustees and Accomack County approved a memorandum of understanding that included providing for the county to contribute $2 million toward the new, $5 million library, which also was funded through $1.5 million in state funds, along with $1.5 million raised through a capital campaign, donations, and grants.
Ground was broken for the new facility Oct. 23, 2019, with hundreds of attendees and then-Gov. Ralph Northam among the speakers.
Initially expected to open in early 2021, the new facility’s completion has been delayed by pandemic-related and other issues. It is expected to be completed in October.
Burton said about the delay in opening the new facility, “I am sad that there are many ways we could have better helped the Shore if we had our new facility up and running when it was supposed to be, right before the pandemic.”
Still, she said, “I am very proud, however, that my staff and I have done fantastic things, despite the construction delays, that have improved the quality of life of our citizens.”
The new library will be 20,837 square feet, compared to the current 11,500 square-foot building.
The Accomac building will be transferred to Accomack County as part of the agreement.
A regional success
The library system, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2018, is among the longest-standing instances of regional cooperation between the Shore’s two counties.
According to the library website, Northampton and Accomack officials voted in 1958 to create the regional Eastern Shore Public Library system, with both counties sharing operating costs, after the library was initiated the previous year as a demonstration project by the state.
The first library was in the town of Accomac’s community hall.
Construction then started on a new library in Accomac, built at a cost of $60,000.
In 1965, after eight years of fundraising, the Accomac library opened. An addition was completed in 1984.
A bookmobile was added in 1971.
Cape Charles Memorial Library, which started in 1919, joined the regional system in 1979, followed by Chincoteague Island Library, which opened in 1995, and Northampton Free Library, in Nassawadox, which opened in 2006.
Burton said her retirement “has been long in planning,” adding, “That is why I returned to Virginia in 2013. There are many things I want to do yet while I am still young and active. The responsibilities of this position do not allow me to be on vacation for extended periods nor take a sabbatical. My retirement allows new leadership to carry forth the board’s plans with new energy. It has truly been a privilege to return to my home place to help lead the building of a new regional library and work to bring the library up to modern standards.”
Accomplishments during Burton’s tenure include fiscal accountability improvements, increased library visibility and activity in the community, increasing the awareness of the value of libraries and literacy in the community, and developing staff capacity, according to the release.
Additionally, Burton was involved in the Eastern Shore Regional Library and Heritage Center capital project and assisting the Eastern Shore Public Library Foundation with fundraising.