Presque Isle Chess Club members from left Roger, Ray Haines, and Lance Beloungie use the community space at The Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library every Thursday for their chess games on March 9. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Presque Isle residents are now part of a national oral history study of community libraries.

Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library is the only one in Maine chosen to participate in research by Jennifer Arns, professor emerita at the University of South Carolina’s School of Information Science.

Her research explores how libraries enrich their communities and why patrons value the facilities in the digital age. Modern libraries have grown beyond books into social and educational hubs, helping patrons learn new skills and meet new people they wouldn’t meet anywhere else, Arns said. 

“People have so much to gain, and often there aren’t as many resources available in small communities,” Arns said. “People are really emphasizing the social aspects of the libraries now.”

Arns started researching the value of public libraries about 10 years ago as part of a panel that worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The research looked at the contributions public libraries make to the prosperity and well-being of their communities.

The Institute for Museum and Library Services decided to continue the research after the first report, “Assessing the Value of Public Library Services: Promises and Prospects,” was published in 2013.

Arns became the principal investigator for a 2018 report from the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. But as she compiled data, she realized they were missing the voices of library users to bring context to the research, she said.  

For her current project, she chose to visit libraries that are linchpins in their small communities, promote social connections and have good history and resources. At each one she visits, she gathers people’s thoughts about how they use the facilities.

In Presque Isle, Library Director Sonja Eyler helped Arns select 10 volunteers of differing ages and backgrounds.

Arns visited two libraries in Massachusetts and New Hampshire before coming to Presque Isle. Later she will visit libraries in Placitas, New Mexico, and Charleston, South Carolina.

She has interviewed about 35 patrons so far to gauge how libraries can change people’s lives. Many respondents said libraries have expanded their intellectual and emotional boundaries in life and provided a window to the world, Arns said.

For instance, some parents interviewed said their children not only benefit from access to books, but also a social space like a library is critical for expanding their lives, she said. Some libraries even have social workers on staff to help patrons find resources for mental health, including offering public presentations.

“What we found was it was not unreasonable to believe that for every dollar spent in your community for public library service, you may get a return between $5 and $6 on that investment,” Arns said.

Though usage diminished during the COVID-19 lockdown, many facilities adapted by leaving books out for curbside pickup and dropoff, she said.

Eyler said she was excited to participate in a national study and find out why the library has strong community supporters.

The public library is an economic engine for Presque Isle because it helps increase the skill levels of community members that have direct workforce impacts, Eyler said.

“One of things [the library] provides is meeting space, gathering space, a unique collection of books and materials, and we are often the first stop for people visiting [when] they need Wi-Fi or a space to wait,” Eyler said.