Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont — From the outside, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House looks like any other Victorian-style building from the early 20th century, complete with stained glass windows, a grandiose façade, and a slate roof.
But once you’re inside, it’s not long before you realize that the Haskell is different from most places. That’s because the border between the United States and Canada divides the building in two, meaning that some readers and theatergoers live in one country — and the rest in another.
Most of the library’s books — mostly English and French, and some in Spanish — are in Canada. In the adjacent opera house, most of the 500 wooden seats, which are spread over two floors, are located in the USA.
But the stage where their first performance took place in 1904 under a domed ceiling, chandelier and painted wall motifs is in Canada.
The building also has two addresses — one Canadian, the other American — but only one entrance on the US side of the border. A line of black tape runs through the main entrance hall and the children’s reading room and marks this dividing line.
“I’m not even aware of that anymore,” said Melanie Aube, the current director of the library, about working in a place that is on an international border and attracts tourists and residents from two neighboring countries.
While borders around the world are increasingly militarized and are a symbol of enforced divisions between communities, the Haskell bears witness to a time when people moved freely in this rural region between the Canadian province of Quebec and the US state of Vermont.
And that is intentional.
The library was opened in 1905, a year after the opera house, and was the idea of a wealthy local woman named Martha Haskell, who built it in the USA and Canada as a sign of solidarity between the inhabitants of the then permeable border area.
For decades, Canadian and American citizens frequently traveled to each other’s countries to go to school, attend church, and even get married. Haskell’s aim was to “defraud” the line, said a young library manager, pointing to a large portrait of the founder in the lobby.
many years, the actual dividing line became something of an oddity and raised questions about where Canada began and where the USA ended, and vice versa.
“For me as a child and for the other children in the village, the iron post on the curb of the wooden sidewalk that marked the spot where Main Street opened into Canadian territory was an object of interest and curiosity,” wrote Austin T Foster, a resident of Derby Line, the rural town in Vermont on the US side of the border, in Vermont Quarterly magazine (PDF) in 1949.
The small town on the Canadian side — Stanstead, Quebec — also has American roots, as it was founded by “pioneers from New England in the 1790s,” according to the community on its website.
which includes the historic villages of Beebe Plain, Stanstead Plain and Rock Island, was once “a haven for smugglers and smugglers,” according to the town. “However, the situation improved with the establishment of a customs station in 1821, the first in the Eastern Townships region.”
Today, in Haskell, the reality of being in two countries at the same time brings its own challenges.
The line with tape on the ground was placed to mark the exact border line after a fire led to a dispute between insurance companies over who should pay for compensation, the tour guide explained.
Situation on the border also means that, despite employees’ desire to evade politics, it has become increasingly difficult to do so in recent years.
“Stop,” says a Canadian government border sign for Vermont, which warns potential border crossers that “not everyone is entitled to apply for asylum in Canada” — a reference to the increase in asylum seekers from the USA in recent years.
Another warning sign, which has been translated into several languages, including Russian, Romanian and Haitian Creole, tells people not to hang around the border.
The library’s strategic location also meant it became the involuntary scene of a criminal scheme that sentenced a Canadian to 51 months in prison in 2018 for smuggling more than 100 handguns from Vermont to Quebec.
According to US authorities, some of the weapons were hidden in small backpacks in a trash can in the Haskell bathroom and then recovered and brought to Canada.
While there are many closely monitored, formal border crossings on the land border between the USA and Canada — including one just down the street from the library and opera house — long sections of the 6,416 km (3,987 miles) route are largely unmanned.
On a cold December morning, a Canadian police cruiser recently parked near the Haskell and monitored the border line, but only stopped for a few minutes before leaving.
To get into the building, Canadians can cross the border and head to the front door on the US side. Passports aren’t required — there’s no formal crossing here, after all — but the library urges visitors to expect their movements to be monitored — and to carry an ID just in case.
The library itself is not a border crossing, Aube emphasized, and family reunions were banned after relatives who were allowed to be in the USA or Canada — but not in both — arrived by the dozens to eat together in the small room.
“It’s sad because we don’t like doing that,” Aube said of the ban. “We want these people to see their families, but if we want our members who donate to the library to stay open, we need to focus on them.”
Another major challenge is financing and maintenance, as the building is designated as a national historic site and is therefore subject to specific renovation and maintenance rules under both US and Canadian regulations, according to Aube.
And despite its uniqueness, Haskell staff readily admit that, as with other libraries around the world, it’s not as easy to attract visitors as it used to be — particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a months-long closure in 2020 and 2021.
Still, the library hosts weekly fairy tale hours for kids in a bright room full of children’s books, as well as a French-language book club that attracts some American Francophiles, Aube said. The opera house now also organises film screenings.
Several generations of local families still use the library’s services, Aube added, and tourists come back year after year. “Because it’s something special,” she said when asked what draws people to the small library.
And when employees and volunteers put books back on the shelves and gave tours of the building on that day in mid-December, a woman pushed through the front doors with a request.
“I need something to read,” she said.
The answer came a moment later: “You’ve come to the right place.”