CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

MDI librarian, historian looks back at 40 years

Posted Oct. 06, 2011, at 11:11 a.m.
Pencil sketch of Bob Pyle in front of the Northeast Harbor Library, 1985, by artist, Vits Knuble.
Image courtesy of Robert R. Pyle
Pencil sketch of Bob Pyle in front of the Northeast Harbor Library, 1985, by artist, Vits Knuble.

Bob Pyle’s love of local history fit nicely with the job he was offered at Northeast Harbor Library in 1971. Working there suited him so well, in fact, that he stayed for nearly 40 years. He has served as director since 1975. Between his tenure at the library, his work as a local police reservist and volunteering for the fire department and the ambulance service, Pyle has been enmeshed in both the summer and year-round communities around Northeast Harbor and the Cranberry Isles all his life. He is in a unique position to look back at the history of the region, not only because he has studied it but because he has lived it.

I visited Pyle in his office last week, where he entertained me with stories and musings about time and change. I had enjoyed some of his entries on the library website and found his conversation similarly rich with historic references, colorful anecdotes and wordplay. I left not only with information about Pyle himself but with a new insight into the evolution of society in one of Maine’s busiest summer communities.

Pyle’s maternal ancestors have Maine roots that date back to the 1630’s. His grandfather, William Otis Sawtelle, founded the Islesford Museum on Little Cranberry Island in 1919. His mother was a historian and librarian in Searsport, where Pyle was a boy, and his mother was a lifelong historian like her father.

“At age seven or eight I got to start shelving books.”

After high school on Mount Desert Island and a earning a bachelor’s in English and American history from Ricker College (a small college in Houlton that has since closed), Pyle took a job at Northeast Harbor Library. In those early days, he worked summers on MDI as a policeman.

“I was the only librarian licensed to carry a concealed weapon.”

One significant change in the community since that time, Pyle observed, is the relationship between the summer population and the locals. Because they used to move north for “the season,” summer residents became integrated into the local community. They spent a great deal of time using the library for recreation or research. Pyle knew all of the summer residents, and summer residents got to know and respect local people and customs quite well. Pyle’s friendship and frequent communications with Brooke Astor, for example, were important enough that New York police interviewed Bob during the embroiled court case over the heiress’s estate.

It was not unusual years ago for summer colonists to volunteer with the fire department, working side-by-side with locals.

Today, most summer visitors are unaware that the fire department is a volunteer service. Since spending the whole summer season is no longer common practice, “the division between summer and local is greater now,” Pyle observed. “They aren’t close enough to the year-round community to understand how things work.”

The running of a library has changed, as well, though one thing remains the same: “The most essential thing in any library is the people who run it. Everything else is a tool.” The most prominent new “tool” is the computer. Most of Pyle’s day is now spent in front of a screen. Nevertheless, he says, “I don’t believe we’ll ever see the demise of the book.”

The library continues to be a central hub for readings, research, programs and children’s events — especially since the library serves as the school library for the K-8 school across the street.

History is the story of change, and Pyle is ready for a change. He is also happy to let some things stay the same. After his retirement party at the end of October, Pyle doesn’t plan to go anywhere. In 1997 his mother was the first recipient of the William Otis Sawtelle award for contributions to the field of local history. The most recent recipient was Pyle, himself. The historian in Pyle will continue exploring and extolling upon local history, even as his own history continues to unfold.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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