Get to Know our Board President, Beth Tohn
Can you share a little about yourself and your background outside of your role as board president?
Like many of you, I chart my life in chapters of places and people, written by the communities in which I’ve lived and grown. Most notably, I grew up in an Army family and then married back into the Army when my husband’s ROTC service transformed into a 24-year+ career. Together with our three children, we made our home in a wide variety of places, never settling in one community for long before it was time for the next adventure. My first experience of Baltimore was in the 80’s when I came down here from Gettysburg College on the back of my then-friend-now-partner’s motorcycle. Over the years, we’ve added a few more Baltimore chapters, enough that we decided to settle in the city after David retired. We’ve now called Charles Village home for almost 10 years – the longest either of us has ever lived anywhere. Throughout our adventures, I’ve held down the fort, worked as a chef, raised three kids and taught many more, cared for extended family, supported military families, and tried to share my curiosity about the world. I value the sizes and flavors of all the communities I’m connected with – whether through memories and bonds forged through shared life experiences long ago, or the smile of a passer-by outside my front stoop. In Charles Village, you might find me digging in my garden, or my annex garden with a neighbor, or in the VLP Garden. My new favorite role is Grandma to an almost 2-year-old who lives right here in Baltimore!
What’s your favorite book, and can you tell us why it’s so special to you?
I don’t really have a favorite book; books resonate with me at different times in different ways. One of the first books I internalized though, was Alice Walker’s, The Color Purple (1982). My 9th grade English teacher gave it to me around the time it was published. The novel opened my mind to the diversity of our human journey and the power of literature to convey the many ways humans experience the world. It taught me to seek that understanding and connection in my own life.
If you were a book character, who do you think you’d be, and why?
This is tough. I’m probably similar to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, the eponymous character in a series of children’s books published in the 1940’s and 50’s by Betty MacDonald. While the stories are clearly products of their time and dated today, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle herself is a quirky woman whose delightful antics and topsy-turvy home prove the cure to many a child’s bad habits (these haven’t changed!) through play, food, animals, and lots and lots of pretending! She reminds us that we are never too old for whimsy and laughter and imagination. I can only hope to embody even a spark of her creative energy.
What is your favorite event at the VLP and why?
The 25th Birthday Bash stands out to me. I helped put together the history display for the celebration, and the process of going through archives of photos, newspaper clippings, and stories of the VLP’s genesis was a fascinating glimpse into our rich history. I feel so much more connected to the sense of this place, this community, and our enduring mission. I was humbled to learn the heroic, collective efforts of many residents I know today, to ensure Charles Village continued to have an important community library and gathering place.
What’s your go-to library section or genre for finding a good read, and do you have any recent favorites?
I am often drawn to narrative non-fiction. A favorite that I’ve read with my students several times is In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (Hampton Sides, 2014). Sides offers a gripping account of the search for the North Pole in the 1870’s-80’s. He captures the thrill of this historical period by deftly weaving first person accounts, letters, articles, engineering schematics and naval records into a visceral narrative of heroism, the drive to discover, and the human capacity to survive against impossible odds. When history comes to life – with the intensity of this book – students can’t help deeply engaging. We were collectively astounded to learn 19th century theories about what might exist at the North Pole. It’s the stuff of fiction! Through our research we discovered and visited the USS Jeannette exhibit and monument at the Naval Academy where we had a lively discussion with the docents to further enliven our experience of the history.
What’s the most interesting or surprising thing you’ve learned about our library since taking on the role of board president?
As president, I’ve been more intentional about being an ambassador for the VLP to peers beyond Charles Village. People tend to fall into two camps – 1) they’ve never heard of the place, or 2) people have a prior connection to the VLP that has stayed with them in the form of an intimate, treasured memory or experience. I love discovering the many ways the VLP has touched people’s lives.
Can you share a fun VLP memory of your own?
Like many people, my first visit to the VLP was when I was invited to attend Read Between the Wines shortly after we moved to Baltimore. I got into a fun bidding war with John Lessner over two silent auction items. We finally agreed to share the items, through which I discovered Fluid Movement’s Water Ballet (and participated the following year as a result). More importantly, John and I became friends. Now we serve together on the VLP board, which further grounds our friendship in this place.
Libraries are often thought of as the heart of the community. How do you envision our library playing a vital role in the local community in the coming years?
I envision the VLP seeking a broader understanding of and connection with community in all its many forms to realize our mission more wholly.
Tell us about your favorite library-related quote or saying, and why it resonates with you.
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” (Cicero) resonates strongly with me. Together, gardens and libraries nourish our bodies, our souls, and our minds with endless possibilities and opportunities for growth. The more time you spend in quiet reflection in your garden or surrounded by books, the more you discover about yourself and others.
Lastly, we can’t end without knowing: what’s your favorite thing about our library’s future, and what are you most excited about during your term as board president?
The Village Learning Place is a vital part of our community. As president, I’m eager to expand our resources to support our work to foster a culture of equity and belonging so that we might see our community with fresh eyes and have the capacity to welcome all into our circle.