When Eva Murray recently took a trip to the mainland to buy books for the Matinicus Island Library, she came back 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 out to sea, Maine’s likely smallest library — and one of its newest — is on a mission to fill its shelves with books that other communities are taking off their shelves.
With a population of only about 100 people, tolerance of others and appreciation for differences matter on the island. That is one reason why the library volunteers are choosing to take this stance.
The 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. Islanders also requested “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman, but Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop in Rockland was out of copies so she will have to special order it.
There are newer books, too. A picture book first published in 2005, “And Tango Makes Three,” tells the true story of two male penguins at Central Park Zoo in New York City who raised a chick together. It is one of the most banned books in the country, according to the American Library Association.
“I am about to rubber stamp those books and take them down to the library,” she said. “We are buying banned books in order to publicly push back against the impetus to ban books. To say, ‘If you don’t want it in your library, we want it in ours.’”
Taking this kind of stance feels like a good fit for the island, whose residents generally adhere to a live and let live kind of philosophy, she said. It also works well with the grassroots nature of the library, which opened in 2016 after an islander sought to give away an eight-by-ten prefabricated storage shed they no longer needed.
Murray, a writer, baker, emergency medical technician and founder of the Matinicus recycling program, had an idea.
“Getting and acquiring a building out here is no small thing. I said, ‘How about we take it, move it off the property, renovate it and it can become our library,” she said. “That is, in fact, what happened.”
Before that, islanders who love to read have found ways to share and get books. More than 40 years ago, island teens gathered cast-off paperbacks to create a short-lived lending library. More recently, islanders use the Maine State Library’s Books By Mail program, share books with each other informally or see what their neighbors have dropped off at the trash and recycling center.
“People would come drop off their recycling and get a book,” Murray said.
Still, some islanders figured that a slightly more formal library could fill a niche on Matinicus and when the shed became available they took action. They applied to have the Matinicus Island Library Association receive non-profit status. Then they hired an island carpenter to renovate the shed’s interior and got Murray’s husband, an electrician, to wire it.
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. “Every other book in there was donated.”
But the islanders set down some ground rules. They didn’t want their library to be overrun with musty, dog-eared, hand-me-down books that someone else just wanted to offload. They wanted books in good condition that islanders would want to read.
And that’s what has happened.
“We have an absolutely solid, full, all-the-walls covered, eight by 20 foot shed,” Murray said. “That started talk about how we need a children’s room because kids loved it, loved it, loved it.”
In 2020, Kristy Rogers McKibben, who grew up on Matinicus and had been one of the teen 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. It’s got the same nice carpentry inside, pine shelving, and I painted this neat, colorful floor.”
Last summer, the children’s room opened to the appreciation and smiles of kids and their parents.
Islanders and visitors to the island care about the library, which has no librarian. Patrons borrow books using the honor system, writing down what they took in a notebook, and are careful to return them. If summer visitors accidentally take a book back home to the mainland, so far they have shipped the volumes unprompted back to the library. The library is the island’s first free wireless hotspot, which has also made a difference to a lot of people, she said.
“It’s open all the time, but people who work there as volunteers work there on their own time at their own convenience,” Murray said. “The only time it might ever be locked is if there’s a hurricane and we have to keep the door from swinging open.”
The library sheds are not heated, which can be a challenge in the wintertime. But they make it work.
“I am every day surprised how much people respect and honor and appreciate and support this,” Murray said.
And that respect and honor seems to be carrying on into the new books chosen for the shelves. The library’s new emphasis on banned books does not seem to be controversial on Matinicus, the state’s most remote and isolated community.
“We are in a privileged position to say, ‘We don’t ban books,’ and that we welcome people’s suggestions for books,” 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.”