This telescope and digital microscope are among the unusual items that cam be checked out of the Bangor Public Library. Credit: Gabor Degre

From the Alice L. Pendleton Library in Islesboro to the Zadoc Long Free Library in Buckfield, Maine’s approximately 265 public and community libraries tie the state together in a comprehensive network of information services, community programming and take-home materials.

But, in addition to books, audiobooks, movies and other traditional fare, Maine libraries serve up a menu of unexpected items that can be checked out and taken home by their patrons. From ukuleles, pruning shears and telescopes to fishing rods, fancy cake pans and knitting needles, libraries are stepping up to serve their communities in ways that are sometimes surprising.

At the Bangor Public Library, for example, card-holders can check out an Orion StarBlast telescope for a week at a time. Suitable for backyard stargazing and family-friendly night-sky events, the 4.5” reflective scope comes with simple instructions, a guide to the constellations and a headlamp for making adjustments in the dark.

Also available at the Bangor Public Library are a couple of compact digital microscopes that display their magnified images on the monitor of your home computer. The microscopes come with instructions and a small box of feathers, fossils and and other items to encourage patrons to look closely at the natural world. The BPL also circulates a constellation of do-it-yourself kits for exploring electronics.

“These are all ways for people to explore ideas, and that’s really what we’re about,” BPL director Barbara McDade said of the library’s diverse collection. “This is a way we can enhance the experience of living in Bangor.”

The library’s circulating collection also includes free passes for up to four people to the Emera Astronomy Center and Jordan Planetarium at the University of Maine, the Maine State Museum in Augusta and the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor.

Niles Parker, executive director of the Discovery Museum, said about 400 adults and children have visited the museum on the BPL’s pass this year, at a value of about $15,000. The museum sells the annual pass to the library for $350.

“It’s something we feel very strongly about, providing admission to the museum for people who might not otherwise have access,” he said.

Other BPL passes will admit up to 17 people — think a school van — into a state park for day use (no camping), or provide a discounted admission to the Bangor Symphony for a child accompanied by an adult.

The public library in Orono also provides free passes to area attractions, including the planetarium at nearby UMaine. “It’s great,” said town resident and library patron Wendy Neary, who regularly attends shows there with her three children, age 10, 11 and 14. Admission would normally cost them $20 — enough to take a bite out of their modest household budget. “For us, right now, it’s a huge help,” Neary said.

Orono Public Library also lends out items ranging from home energy auditing kits to ukuleles. The simple, four-stringed instruments are particularly popular with older patrons.

“People end up borrowing them to get a feel for whether they want to buy one of their own and go on playing them,” said director Laurie Carpenter. Many have gone on to join the community’s loose-knit ukulele group, which meets monthly at the library.

Collections at other Maine libraries include pruning shears in Bowdoinham to help area residents stem the influx of brown-tail moth caterpillars, a collection of basic hand tools in Auburn, African djembe drums in Rockland and hula-hoops for family parties in South Berwick. There are ankle weights and a yoga block in Pittsfield, cake pans and decorating tools in New Gloucester and snowshoes in Biddeford.

At the Kennebunk Free Library, a generous patron recently donated her entire collection of knitting needles — a considerable selection of sizes and materials, both straight and circular. Assistant Director Michelle Conners said the knitting needles, each set professionally cataloged and packed in its own cardboard tube, don’t circulate as much as she’d like but are in some demand by the library’s on-site knitting group. Family board games and puzzles are also popular, she said — the occasional missing piece is “just the cost of doing business.”

In Topsham, the library has acquired a selection of fishing rods, both spinning and fly.

“Our library is right on the banks of the Androscoggin River,” said library director Susan Preece. “The outdoors is a really important interest for people in Topsham.”

The fishing rods are popular with patrons throughout the fishing season, she said, and especially during the town’s annual fishing rally. The rods are prominently displayed in the library, along with field guides, local fishing maps and other information. A cadre of local enthusiasts keep the rods in good working order, and a grant from L.L. Bean helps replace worn-out equipment.

The Topsham Public Library also circulates about 10 pairs of binoculars that often get checked out along with books on birding. Preece said many interested patrons come from a nearby retirement community.

“This is where libraries can really show the depth and breadth of library services,” she said, “by offering communities what they need and making the link between the real world and the other resources of the library.”

About 63 Maine libraries now boast a telescope similar to Bangor’s in their collections. That’s largely due to Cornerstones of Science, a Brunswick-based nonprofit dedicated to getting more hands-on science into Maine communities. The group purchases the telescopes and then “ruggedizes” them for public use before selling them at a discount to libraries in Maine and 18 other states, according to Programming and Library Support Manager Sarah Post.

“We typically put 3 to 5 hours into tightening up the fittings and gluing things down so it comes back to the library very similar to how it left,” she said. Library staff, often more at home in the world of arts and letters than in the world of scientific inquiry, are trained to use the scopes themselves so they can better assist the patrons who check them out for home use.

“These science tools often are the spark that gets libraries more interested in science for their patrons,” Post said. “When we ask how science can be more accessible and sustainable in the community, we think it can happen through the public library system.”

Alison L. Maxell, Director of Public Services and Outreach, Research & Innovation at the Maine Public Libraries, said Maine libraries work with a creative patchwork of funding sources, including municipal support, individual donations and grants. In order to adapt to their evolving role as community centers, media hubs and information exchanges, their circulation collections change to reflect the interests of the communities they serve.

“It’s about being relevant and responsive to community needs,” she said. “If they can catalog it, they can loan it.”

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at