When Eva Murray recently traveled to the Continent to buy books for the Matinicus Island Libraryshe returned with bags full of field guides—”They’re popular here,” she said—and books requested by Islanders that have been banned or challenged elsewhere in America.
Located 22 miles offshore, Maine’s smallest library — and one of its newest — is on a mission to fill its shelves with books that other communities pull off their shelves.
With a population of only around 100 people, tolerance towards others and appreciation of differences are important on the island. This is one of the reasons why library volunteers choose to take this position.
Books include classics such as “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. The islanders also requested “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman, but Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop in Rockland was running out of copies, so they’ll have to order it specially.
There are also more recent books. A picture book first published in 2005, “And Tango Makes Three,” tells the true story of two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo who raised a chick together. It is one of the most banned books in the country, according to the American Library Association.
“I’m about to stamp these books and bring them to the library,” she said. “We buy banned books in order to publicly push back the urge to ban books. Say, ‘If you don’t want it in your library, we want it in ours.’
Taking that kind of stance seems to suit the island, whose residents generally adhere to a live-and-let-live philosophy, she said. It also works well with the grassroots nature of the library, which opened in 2016 after an islander sought to donate an eight-by-ten prefab storage shed he no longer needed.
Murray, writer, baker, emergency medical technician and founder of the Matinicus recycling program, had an idea.
“Obtaining and acquiring a building here is no small feat. I said, ‘How about taking it, moving it off the property, renovating it and it can become our library,’ she said. “That is, in fact, what happened.”
Before that, islanders who love to read found ways to share and get books. More than 40 years ago, island teenagers collected discarded paperbacks to create a pop-up lending library. More recently, the islanders use the Maine State Library Books by Mail program, share books with each other informally, or see what their neighbors have dropped off in the trash and at the recycling center.
“People would drop off their recycling and get a book,” Murray said.
Still, some islanders thought a somewhat more formal library might fill a niche on Matinicus and when the shed became available they took action. They requested that the Matinicus Island Library Association be granted non-profit status. Then they hired an island carpenter to remodel the inside of the shed and had Murray’s husband, an electrician, wire it up.
Then it was time to fill the new shelves with books.
“I bought a set of field guides once we got tax-exempt status,” Murray said. “All the other books in there have been donated.”
But the islanders have established some ground rules. They didn’t want their library to be overrun with moldy, dog-eared, used books that someone else just wanted to unload. They wanted books in good condition that the islanders would want to read.
And that’s what happened.
“We have an absolutely solid, full, all-wall-covered hangar, eight by 20 feet,” Murray said. “It started talking about the need for a kid’s room because the kids loved it, loved it, loved it.”
In 2020, Kristy Rogers McKibben, who grew up on Matinicus and had been one of the teenage librarians 40 years ago, applied to the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation for a grant to add a second shed to make a children’s library. The foundation approved the grant, and after the insulated shed was delivered on the ferry, library volunteers again got to work to make it functional.
“It’s cute as a bunny,” Murray said. “It’s just something that makes people smile. There’s the same beautiful millwork inside, pine shelving, and I painted that neat, colorful floor.
Last summer, the children’s room opened up to the appreciation and smiles of children and their parents.
Islanders and visitors to the island care about the library, which has no librarian. Customers borrow books on an honor system, write down what they have taken in a notebook, and take care of returning it. If summer visitors accidentally bring a book home to the mainland, so far they have returned the volumes to the library uninvited. The library is the island’s first free wireless hotspot, which has also made a difference for many people, she said.
“It’s open all the time, but the people who work there as volunteers work there in their spare time at their convenience,” Murray said. “The only time it might be locked is if there’s a hurricane and we need to keep the door from opening.”
The library sheds are unheated, which can be a challenge in the winter. But they make it work.
“I’m amazed every day how much people respect, honor, appreciate and support that,” Murray said.
And that respect and honor seems to carry over into the new books chosen for the shelves. The library’s new emphasis on banned books doesn’t appear to be controversial in Matinicus, the most remote and isolated community in the state.
“We’re in a unique position to say, ‘We’re not banning books,’ and that we welcome people’s book suggestions,” Murray said. “That’s the thing about starting a library [out here]. You can do good without having to ask for a lot of permissions first.