SWAN’S ISLAND, Maine — More than two years after the town library burned to the ground, taking thousands of books and more than 100 years worth of historical artifacts with it, the process of building a new library has begun.
Residents and government officials attended a groundbreaking ceremony Friday for the new building. Approximately 200 people attended the event, according to local officials, to celebrate the pending rebirth of the important community facility.
“It was fantastic,” Ken Dutille, president of the Swan’s Island Educational Society, said Monday. The society owns the library and oversees the island’s historical society, which had its collection in the library when it went up in flames after being struck by lightning in July 2008.
Dutille said that Friday would be remembered as an important day in the island’s history. “It’s one of the great events, like when the first ferry came in [in 1960],” he said.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins attended the groundbreaking, as did Virginia Manuel, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which gave the town a $398,000 grant to rebuild the library. A representative from U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office attended, and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud sent a letter that was read, according to Library Director Candis Joyce.
Construction is expected to begin within the next few weeks, officials said.
The high turnout and the VIPs the event attracted reflect the importance of the library to the offshore island community, local officials said.
Besides being a library, the former building also housed the historical society’s collection and served as one of the island’s few year-round, heated public meeting spaces, according to Joyce. It hosted meetings and social events, she said.
“We’ve had pizza and movie nights in the past,” she said.
Joyce said the library had between 10,000 and 12,000 volumes of material in its collection, including books, CDs and DVDs, when it burned down. Since the fire, the library has rebuilt its collection to between 6,000 and 7,000 volumes, much of which is in storage. Since 2008, about 3,000 volumes have been kept available for public access in a meeting room at the town office.
“We have received books from around the nation and around the state,” Joyce said.
Some of the historical society’s larger artifacts, including a post office box door, fish barrels, rocking chairs and a cast-iron stove, were in storage elsewhere when the lightning struck and so were spared from the flames, she said. The society still has these items and has been rebuilding its collection with the help of the Rockland-based Island Institute. The institute’s island fellow for Swan’s Island, Meghan Vigeant, has been recording oral histories from some of the island’s older residents and has been scanning historical photographs into a new digital database, Joyce said.
The town and historical society have very little storage space, but Joyce said she hopes more artifacts will be donated to the collection once the library is complete.
“I’m hoping so,” she said. “That’s definitely one of my goals.”
The new library is expected to have 3,500 square feet of space, slightly more than the old building. It is being built on approximately the same site as the old one, which had served as the village school from 1903 to 1954.
Joyce said the projected overall cost of the project, including land work around the building, is $1.4 million. Aside from the USDA grant, the project also has received $50,000 from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation and $20,000 from the Virginia Wellington Cabot Family Trust, she said.
According to Dutille, the library will have only one floor because of the costs and cultural implications of having an elevator, which would be required if the building had a second story. He said there are no elevators on Swan’s Island now, and some residents think it should stay that way.
“The elevator would have added upward of $100,000 to the cost,” Dutille said.
One of the society’s next goals, Dutille said, is to create an endowment to help pay for the library’s operations and needs. Aside from that, he added, the town hopes to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony next spring when the new library is complete.