Maine Library Turns Down Offer for 5,000+ Sailing Books and Space to House Them

- by Michael Stillman

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Northeast Harbor Library (from their website).

A coastal Maine library apparently has turned down a free offer of 5,000-6,000 books on sailing, plus funds to create the space to house them. In another time an offer like this would have been quickly accepted, but this is not another time. Today, it is sometimes better to look a gift horse in the mouth.

 

The library in question is the Northeast Harbor Library, located on Mount Desert Island, an island off the coast of Maine near Bar Harbor. Sailing is a major pastime there because, like, what else is there to do in coastal Maine? It's too cold to swim. Mount Desert Island has some wealthy residents, not so much year-round but people who come during the summer to stay cool. The Rockefellers have a retreat here. The Bush family is known for having an estate in Maine, though theirs in farther south on the coast. They are also known for sailing. What must be one of the most extensive collections of sailing books would seem a natural fit for the Northeast Harbor Library. So, why would they turn it down?

 

No reason was given, but we can rule out construction cost. The anonymous donor offered two proposals for which he/she would pay the bill. The least expensive one was to renovate the basement. It is currently used for storage. Space would be set aside for a table and chairs. To protect the collection, access would have required escort by a librarian and books would not have been permitted to leave the room.

 

The second and more expensive alternative was to build a second story on top of the older section of the library. The shortcoming of this plan was that it would have changed the outside appearance of the only remaining original section of the library, and lowered the existing vaulted ceiling in that part of the building. The Planning Board, when advised of the proposal, favored the basement renovation plan instead.

 

Nonetheless, the local newspaper, the Mount Desert Islander, reports that the library's Executive Director described this as a “dead issue,” without saying why. We can't say why, but it is not hard to imagine the complications that arise from this generous gift. The reality is “free” may apply to the initial cost of books and space, but there remains the issue of upkeep. The books will have to be cared for, and the space properly climate controlled. That will not be cheap in Maine's chilly, damp climate. Then there is security, and in the case of the basement option, a reduction in storage space.

 

The ongoing costs alone would not be a reason to reject the offer. The other side is usage. How many people on Mount Desert Island will actually use the collection? Will it be enough to justify the expenses? Despite the local sailors, it's hard to imagine many of them will be going to the library to read older sailing books in this special room, unable to take them home. That is a type of use mostly limited to researchers and scholars. While many in Mount Desert Island may be sailors, not many are likely conducting sailing research.

 

Certainly, such a collection would have added prestige to what is otherwise a fairly obscure library. There may be no better sailing collection in America. This would be quite an honor, and might bring an occasional scholar from some far off location to their library to conduct research. Still, of how much benefit is this to Mount Desert Islanders, who will have to foot the bill for ongoing expenses? There aren't all that many public funds floating around these days, and the Northeast Harbor Library needs to concentrate its money on services demanded by their constituents. It would have been nice for a small library like this to house such a special collection, but it may not be that practical. We imagine cold reality won out here over dreams.