Libraries are community nexus

The election, such as it was, is behind us. Hancock County went for Question 1, the “Clean Elections” proposal, bettering the state margin of approval by 58 percent versus 55 percent. The low-income senior housing bond passed with 69 percent of the vote, and the highway and transportation bond passed with a whopping 75 percent.

Ellsworth’s attempt to pass a bond for “expansion, renovation and repairs” to its public library got trounced. People! Library! It is certainly prudent to resist taking on too much debt. But do you know what your library does?

If you think a library is all about providing good books for those with the time to read them, then you have not hung around your local library lately. In towns small and not so small, libraries are transforming themselves to respond to contemporary demands. A local library is one-stop shopping in a highly user-friendly form.

As long ago as the 1930s, the Blue Hill Library was looking at books as an “incidental byproduct” of its services, which included “everything from a party planning service to exhibits of historic treasures.” Now electronic “petting zoos” showcase equipment from computers to iPads to e-readers, helping patrons understand what is available, how to use it and even allowing items to be borrowed.

Residents and visitors alike enter local libraries with all kinds of questions, from “Do you have wireless?” to “Where’s the restroom?” They come to meet their literacy volunteer in a quiet corner, to print out a resume for a job search, to join a writers’ group, to listen to an author speak, or to knit or paint or contra dance.

Where do I vote, and how do I register? Is there a local course in English as a Second Language? How does this search engine work? Many of these queries have little to do with the traditional definition of a library. No matter. Who else are you going to ask?

In the summer, many visitors arrive looking to do some research on long-lost ancestors. As the weather shifts, some people just need a warm place to spend part of the day. Then there are the wee ones, pre-schoolers who come to story hour to listen (kind of), sing along or ogle and poke each other.

For librarians, this is their purpose. They are information managers, be it through books, computers or their own store of local knowledge. All comers are greeted with a smile by a staff prepared to knock themselves out making everyone feel welcome, answering questions, helping with research, recommending books, creating new programming and keeping the increasingly complex behind-the-scenes work of a library flowing.

Lucky are we that libraries always have had their champions. From Andrew Carnegie, Scottish library promoter extraordinaire, to Maine’s own Stephen King, most community libraries have had generous patrons without whom their libraries would not have become a reality.

Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Ellsworth, Bucksport and Blue Hill have some of the bigger libraries in Hancock County, but the smaller ones, such as the Bass Harbor Memorial Library in Bernard, are by no means chopped liver. There are many gems among them, from the drop-dead gorgeous Winter Harbor Public Library at Channing Chapel to the lovely East Blue Hill Public Library.

The smaller libraries are usually open on a limited schedule, and virtually all, big or small, are heavily dependent on volunteers. Programming covers a wide array of local interests. The Deer Isle Library hosts occasional “Wonderful Wednesdays,” when anyone in the community can give a short talk on what they do and why they do it.

Hancock County island communities have libraries too. The library on Swans Island literally rose from the ashes of a catastrophic library fire in 2008. The Frenchboro Public Library can’t be beat for service to the town’s few dozen residents; its website says it is “open to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, however library staffing is limited.” Translation: The door is unlocked. Help yourself to books.

The newer of these libraries were founded decades ago; some are more than a century old. Friend Memorial Library in Brooklin hit the century mark in 2012. The librarian herself, who was hired a month after its founding, served 44 years. The Witherle Memorial Library in Castine was the first municipal library in the state, opening 160 years ago.

The Tisdale House, core of the Ellsworth Public Library, will celebrate its 200th birthday in 2017. Keeping these very old buildings in good repair, not to mention modernizing them for new uses and to meet current building codes, is a challenge. Benefactors such as George Nixon Black (Ellsworth), Maria DeWitt Jesup (Bar Harbor) and the Buck family (Bucksport) are few and far between. It’s up to us.

Here’s hoping the good people of Ellsworth can find a way to keep their library alive and well. The rest of us need to look to the future of our own libraries. They are a major part of the life of our communities. It would be too bad if we only realize that after they are gone.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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