This story from the rocky shores of Down East Maine throws a light on a dilemma that increasingly is ensnaring both libraries and book collectors these days. In the digital age, with decreasing use of libraries, particularly their physical collections, what do we do with all of these books?
The Mount Desert Islander recently reported on a gift opportunity offered to the Northeast Harbor Library. For those not familiar with the geography, Northeast Harbor is a community on a large island (Desert Island) off the eastern coast of Maine. It's near the better known Bar Harbor. The population is small in the wintertime, Maine requiring hardy souls to live there year round. In the summer, the population swells, easterners coming to escape the heat. Some are among the very wealthy, including members of the Rockefeller family. While one rarely associates the word "desert" with Maine, early explorer Samuel de Champlain so named the island as its rocky peaks look barren and desert like.
According to the Islander, the Northeast Harbor Library has been offered a collection of 5,000-6,000 books on sailing by an anonymous Mount Desert resident. The prospective donor has offered both the books and to pay for the necessary construction or renovation needed to house the collection. The donor is requiring the collection be held in a separate space, secure and climate controlled. The donor has also asked for two plans, a budget version and a more expensive one.
The less expensive option being considered would involve renovating the basement. It is currently used as storage space. Books would not be permitted to leave the room. A table and chairs would be set up and visitors would have to be escorted to the room by a librarian.
The more expensive choice would be to build a new room on top of an older, existing section of the library. The Islander describes this as a "much more expensive" choice. It would require eliminating the older room's vaulted ceiling and altering the outside appearance of the structure, in particular, its historic section.
However, there is a third option, to which the Islander alluded in the last sentence of the article - " [Library Director Elly] Andrews said the library is still 'just exploring' the possibility of housing the collection of sailing books and that 'it might not happen.'"
That last sentence is the key. You might think it a no-brainer to take the collection, especially since the donor is willing to pay for creating the space to house it. Unfortunately, that doubly generous gift does not let the library off the hook in terms of costs. It will still have to maintain the room and the collection, an estimated 216 linear feet of shelf space, from here to eternity. That won't be inexpensive. After all, it is required to be secure and climate controlled. The regular flow of library theft stories, and occasional fires, attest to the ongoing expenses for security. And, when it comes to climate control, good luck doing that cheaply in Maine. "Desert" Island notwithstanding, the Maine coast is damp. The humidity runs high. Preservation of books in this environment will need a combination of air conditioning, heating, and dehumidifying running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Humidity doesn't take off even Christmas in coastal Maine.
Then, there is the balancing act. How many people will use the collection? Will it be enough to justify the cost of maintenance? This will be a limited access collection. There won't be children thumbing through the pages to see the illustrations. This is more for scholars, or perhaps a not yet entirely scholarly student writing a report. What we know from the limited amount of traffic seen these days in the rare book rooms even of highly prestigious institutions is that visitors will likely be small. Maintenance costs per visitor in such institutions is often a number no one really wants to look at too carefully. So, how many visitors will visit the sailing books room of a library in a small town in rural eastern Maine? Perhaps, if there are unique items, digitization would bring virtual visitors to the library via the internet, but live ones could be hard to find. The library may be hard-pressed to get even the yacht sailing Rockefellers to drop by.