One Island Library on a Mission
A Letter from Matinicus
Matinicus Island, which lies roughly 20 miles from the mainland south-southeast of Rockland, has what could be the smallest public library anywhere that isn’t actually on wheels.
In the face of what some see as the inevitability of our town’s shrinkage, our library is growing. The population of the semi-organized town known as Matinicus Isle Plantation falls below critical mass most of the year, yet this community holds on. Come winter, as some drain their plumbing and depart for the mainland, those who stay plow the roads, bind up each other’s wounds, keep the lights burning—and read.
The five-year-old Matinicus Island Library Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, received a grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation in 2020. This funding, combined with many small, local donations, will establish our new children’s library (scheduled to open in the spring of 2021).
Founding a library in a town with fewer than 100 residents might sound like a stretch, but it truly makes people happy. Inside the 8'x20' repurposed shed with its beautifully renovated interior, readers sign out books on the honor system by simply jotting in a notebook. A pile of games, puzzles, and DVDs fills a corner, a toddler-sized table and chairs is parked in the back, and periodicals such as National Fisherman, the Island Journal, and—of course—Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors are displayed. Outdoors, two picnic tables encourage open-air seating, especially important these days (our library remains officially open during the pandemic with a few limitations and procedural changes).
Maintaining a small library on Matinicus is not an expensive luxury. The monthly electricity bill sometimes shows one kilowatt hour of use. That’s a couple of lightbulbs—rarely needed except in the short days of winter—and the wireless modem. Once in a while somebody charges their mobile device.
Our humble library might just be a gentle symbol of defiance, and perhaps that is in keeping with this community’s edgy reputation. We actively and consciously resist the “sensible” argument that this town is moribund, too small to function, and destined for oblivion. For all the sentimentality people feel about their favorite Maine summer havens, when winter logistics prove challenging and weather gets harsh we still hear, “Why on earth would anybody want to live on an island?”
Nobody claims that a library is an essential, but in offering the only public wireless Internet connection and an emergency telephone, the facility does make life easier. Public telephones
matter here because cellular telephone service on Matinicus is erratic and unreliable. With no restaurants, cafes, or public gathering spaces, a wireless hotspot is vital for any visitor or worker who needs to connect but doesn’t have a home here. And we never know who the charging station will rescue!
Matinicus is neither stylish nor convenient as a tourist destination, and although our population increases in the warmer weather we don’t get crazy busy during the summer months. Local moms and their toddlers take out picture books, off-duty sternmen hover over the Internet on their mobile devices, and occasionally you might spot folks playing cribbage at the picnic table. During the winter, year-round islanders like the idea of a new fat novel for those wet, gray days. A full set of field guides (to most everything—birds, marine life, trees, stars) is well-used and is the heart of our “reference section.” Books with a maritime or Maine theme are a specialty. And, of course, we have lots of works by Elisabeth Ogilvie, Paul Doiron, and Stephen King.
Our library building isn’t quaint. It isn’t architecturally interesting. It isn’t charming. It isn’t even historic. The closest thing to a pair of stone lions flanking the library steps is when Bear, the black dog from across the road, sprawls on the picnic table in a suitably lion-like pose. The Matinicus library isn’t completely official yet in the eyes of the state of Maine because we don’t have staff, or a bathroom, which seems to be a requirement. But we maintain informal connections with other libraries and their expert personnel.
The new addition will be specifically geared to encourage island children to consider the library their own, housing a fresh collection of books for younger patrons and space for art activities and youth-friendly projects. Matinicus Island may not boast a large population, but we are deeply invested in our littlest residents. The island’s children are a knee-high crowd at present, mostly babies and preschoolers from lobstering families with deep local roots. As somebody pointed out, the little ones “each have a cute sun hat, a big-wheeled stroller, and their own string of lobster traps.” They will soon also have a bright new Children’s Library.
Eva Murray lives year-round on Matinicus Island. She has written three books detailing aspects of island life, including Island Schoolhouse: One Room for All (Tilbury House). She is the Matinicus Island Library Association treasurer.
Buoys, Birds & Books
Artist David Sears, a resident of Matinicus and Cushing, has been making sculptures of birds from wooden buoys used by fishermen. Proceeds of the sales will support the library fund.
This pair of common eiders (above) was made from a single wooden buoy donated to the project by an island resident whose relative made it and used it for fishing off Matinicus Island. The front pair of Atlantic Puffins (below) was made from a single island buoy, and the one in the rear was made from a buoy painted and fished on the island by a member of the Philbrook family. Other examples of Sears’s work can be found on dsearsart.com. He is represented by Artemis Gallery in Northeast Harbor artemisgalleryme.com.