A Border Runs Through It

Is the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Vermont or in Quebec? Turns out it is in both! You may think this happened accidentally, but in fact, it was deliberately built right smack on the U.S. Canada border in 1905, half of it in Derby Line, Vermont and the rest in Standstead, Quebec. It was not designed as a novelty attraction, but rather as a way to honor the memory of Carlos Haskell, a prominent merchant in Standstead. Back at the turn of the century, the border was a rather casual thing, and the residents of both communities freely crossed it without much more than a friendly wave to the customs agents. In fact, the two towns functioned more as a single community with residents visiting, shopping, eating, seeing doctors, and generally conducting business in both towns with no thought to the border. So it made sense that the widow of Carlos Haskell would want to give the whole community a gift in his name, specifically a library with an opera house on the second floor, that was meant to be both a center for learning and for culture for the residents of both towns.

The building is a beautiful Queen Anne style structure featuring stained glass windows, rare native woods, mosaics, a fireplace, works of art, and because it is Canada, the occasional moose head. In contrast to all this elegance, a simple somewhat worn, strip of black masking tape marks the border inside the building, running through both the library and the opera house above. The opera house, incidentally, was built with the idea that proceeds from it would help support the library below. As it happens, most of the books are on the Canadian side, while most of the opera seats are on the U.S. side.  So it has been said that it is the only library in the U.S. with no books and the only opera house with no stage. Nevertheless, people enjoyed the many events in the opera house and the many books in the library, crossing the border both inside and outside the library as they came and went

This went on for nearly a century, and then 9/11 happened. Suddenly, national security became a real concern and a big ugly fence went up between the two cities. This put a stop to all these casual comings and goings and effectively cut the residents off from each other since there was no official point of entry between these small towns. This posed a dilemma for the library as the only entrance was on the U.S. side. Much of the staff, as well as half of the patrons, lived in Canada and now had no access to it.  Eventually a solution was worked out which permitted entrance to the U.S. in one spot only, from a sidewalk that runs along the side of the library. Visitors from Canada must park in Canada then follow the sidewalk to the library. When they leave, they must immediately go back to Canada by the same path. No shopping, no eating, no visiting, no dilly dallying, just right back where they came from. And it is a one-way street permitting no access by U.S. visitors into Canada. Since it is not an official point of entry, even though there are guards from both countries nearby keeping an eye on things, passports and ID are generally not requested. However, in addition to the ever-present border agents, a U.S. Homeland Security vehicle sits outside the library’s entrance 24/7. However, one other concession was granted; near the library, the imposing border fence has been replaced by a friendlier flowerpot border. Where once the residents of the two towns freely and frequently interacted, crossing the border at multiple points, they now are separated by the border fence, with the library being the only place they can interact.

Once inside, it is a friendly place, and a lot like any other library, except that people freely walk back and forth across an international border. There are no guards at this masking tape border, and people often pose and take pictures there, but when they leave, they must return to or stay in, their own side of the border. Both English and French are spoken, both currencies are accepted, and if it should come up, laws from both countries apply. Books in both languages sit side by side on the shelves, with one difference – the direction of the title on the spine is from top to bottom on books printed in the U.S., while French titles are written bottom-to-top.

In recent years, the library has served a new function as a place for families separated by borders, travel bans, and visas to reunite. This was especially true for Iranian families as President Trump’s travel ban prevented them from entering the United States.  Many Iranians had family already in the U.S. on either work or study visas that they had not seen for a long time. However, since these are generally single entry visas, they could not leave the U.S. to visit family in Iran, as they could not reenter upon their return. Someone heard about this unique library and got the idea that it could be a way for families to meet for a few hours. Word spread and dozens of Iranian families traveled to Canada to cross the border into the library to do just that. This was tolerated more than encouraged, and there was some resistance and tension from authorities on both sides of the border. However, these visits have been a moot point for the last year and a half as the Covid pandemic closed the library. In fact, the border itself is closed to all except for essential travel. Though in the process of reopening, the building will not be open to the public until the border is open again for non-essential travel.

Until Covid happened, Haskell Free Library and Opera House continued to operate as both a busy library and a fully booked opera house. It has been featured in countless publications and TV news spots around the world and people from all over come to see it and take photos of themselves straddling the border. In 1976, the U.S. portion was listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places, and in 1985, the Canada portion was named a National Historic Site of Canada, possibly the only instances of half a building being listed on national registers.

Read more about this unique library and see photos:

Haskell Free library & Opera House History website

Haskell Free Library and Opera House

Haskell Free Library and Opera House National Historic Site of Canada

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House: A Century of History on the Canada-U.S. Border

The U.S. Canada border runs through this tiny library

The U.S.-Canada Border Runs Directly through This Library

For some Iranian families separated by the travel ban, this border library offers brief moments of reunion

Books before borders: Letter from a library on the US-Canada boundary

A border runs through it: A tale of migration, separation, and reunification
A place where the travel ban doesn’t matter – (podcast)

YouTube Tour

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