SWAN’S ISLAND, Maine —- Nearly three years ago, there was little more on this spot next to Atlantic Road than ashes and charred rubble.
What had been a schoolhouse during the early 1900s and then a library was gone, destroyed by a July 24, 2008 fire that began as a bolt of lightning during a fierce summer thunderstorm. Gone were thousands of books, digital video disks, audio books and historical items such as quarrying records, collected weather data, and ferry logs. Island residents were left stunned and saddened at the loss of the century-old community building and the wealth of information it housed.
This past week, however, the island got its library back. The books, digital media and historical items that burned may be lost forever, but a new 3,500 square-foot building with a new collection was officially dedicated Thursday as several hundred people gathered outside to witness the opening of a new chapter in the island’s history.
“It’s more than we ever could have dreamed possible,” Candis Joyce, the library’s director, said earlier this week of having a library building again. “It’s huge.”
The Swan’s Island Educational Society, which operates the library and functions as the community’s historical society, did not disappear, however. The society was formed in the early 1970s and took over operation of a library that two local residents, Ed Wheaton and Wesley Staples, had founded a few years before.
In the weeks after the fire, donations in the form of books began arriving by the box, allowing the organization to continue to offer services to island residents, which number fewer than 400 in the winter but more than 1,000 in the summer. For the past three years the library has been operating a few days a week out of the local town office.
“It was wonderful for them to allow us to do that,” Joyce said.
She said the new library already has around 5,000 or 6,000 new volumes of books, DVDs and other types of media. She estimated that it will be able to hold about 10,000 such volumes when it is full.
Dexter Lee, a Swan’s Island selectman and a library trustee, said Saturday that, in addition to books, the society has received many financial donations to put toward the new building, which cost $1.1 million to design and build. Some of the money was raised through fundraisers, such as an auction of artwork created from burnt book pages collected at the fire scene.
The biggest contributions, Lee said, were nearly $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $50,000 from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, and $20,000 from the Virginia Wellington Cabot Family Trust. The town received $500,000 from its insurance company for the destroyed building and also put that money toward the new building, he said.
“There was a huge amount of donations,” Lee said. “I think people have been looking forward to [having a new building].”
Aside from its library collection, SIES also is working to rebuild its historical collection, he said, though that process will take longer. Several large historical artifacts such as antique glass countertop cases were in storage at the local Oddfellows hall and so escaped the blaze. With the help of a scanner, the society is borrowing old photos from residents and making new prints to add to its collection, he said.
The new library, construction of which got under way last summer, consists of one floor. It has a kitchenette, a reading room with a propane fireplace, a screened porch in the back where Internet access is available 24 hours a day, and a large ceiling fan. It also has a projection screen that descends from the ceiling for movie nights or other video presentations, Lee said. Yoga classes will be offered at the library on Mondays, he said.
One movie night at the library already is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, July 30, when the premiere of “The Tully Girls,” a film that was shot on Swan’s Island last summer, will be screened.
Lee said local craftspeople also contributed to the buildings construction, donating the fireplace mantle, a carved duck on the mantle, a table in the children’s reading area, the reception desk, and two elm stools.
On Saturday, island residents and visitors already were demonstrating their comfort and familiarity with the new building, which was designed to be energy efficient. While a few residents used library computers to browse online, several children gathered around island resident Elizabeth Brennell as she read aloud from the book “Walter the Farting Dog.”
At a nearby table, Rob Laporte of Hadley, Mass. sat using his laptop to access the Internet. Laporte said that every few years he visits friends who own a home on Swan’s Island. A Shakespearean scholar, he said having the Internet access allows him to stay on Swan’s Island for up to three weeks when he visits.
“I wouldn’t have been able to come to the island if not for some sort of Internet connection,” Laporte said.
He added that, though he liked the old building, he is happy the new one offers more modern comfort and services.
“I liked the [old library]. It had a lot of character,” Laporte said. “I love [the new one].”