Though he’s worked in libraries for more than a decade, Millinocket Memorial Library director Matt DeLaney didn’t get into the library game because he loves books. He chose to work in libraries because he loves people.
“Libraries are a public space where trust and relationships are built within a community,” said DeLaney, 36, who moved to Millinocket two years ago from Syracuse, New York. “Libraries bring people together. And in this information age, where knowledge is everything, I think libraries are more relevant than ever. I know all of that sounds like buzzwords, but it’s absolutely true.”
Today, the mission of providing equal access to information goes far beyond a library’s traditional role of being a repository of books, periodicals and public documents. Public libraries in towns large and small have expanded their scope to include an array of items available to patrons, both educational and recreational.
In Millinocket, patrons can not only check out the latest Stephen King book — they can borrow one of the library’s many mountain bikes, canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards or sets of cross-country skis and take them out for a spin in the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument or on the new Katahdin Area Trails. The equipment, which was donated to the library by the Outdoor Sport Institute, makes up the new Katahdin Gear Library, and is free and open to anyone.
“Libraries across the country are redefining what they are and how they can serve their communities,” DeLaney said. “If ecotourism and the outdoors is what’s going to save the Katahdin region, then that’s what we need to offer to our patrons. We don’t give them books about mountain biking. We put them on a mountain bike.”
Aside from Millinocket, libraries such as the tiny Cherryfield Public Library in Washington County offers everything from tennis rackets to an American Girl doll for loan. At the Readfield Community Library in Kennebec County, patrons can borrow snow shovels, sleds and snowshoes during the winter. At the library in New Gloucester, just south of Auburn, staff have amassed a wide array of craft and art supplies for patron use.
Janet McKenney, director of library development for the Maine State Library in Augusta, said public libraries worldwide have in the past 15 or so years begun to shift their thinking away from just books and reading materials toward being a multi-use center for the exchange of information of all types.
“I think a lot of it started with the internet. At first, librarians were a little dubious about it, but as the internet became ubiquitous I think it really opened their eyes as to the possibilities,” McKenney said. “I think we generally have a different idea about what our role is in the community now. I think now it’s all about accessibility to all forms of information.”
At larger, more urban public libraries, such as the Bangor Public Library, librarians don’t just point people in the direction of the book they’re looking for — they help people access social services and assist them with tasks such as filing their taxes online or renewing a passport or driver’s license. The need for such help had become so high at the Portland Public Library that this year it hired its first full-time social worker.
“There are libraries that have special kitchen items, or gardening tools, if you want to try something but can’t afford to buy a bunch of equipment you might only use once. There are libraries that have things like lead testing kits for water, or a meter to see how efficient your electrical use in your house is,” McKenney said. “Why shouldn’t a library help you with those sorts of things?”
In Millinocket, the Katahdin Gear Library has only been up and running for about a year, but has already seen an array of users from within the community and beyond use its extensive collection of gear. DeLaney also last year started a new project called the Katahdin Story Booth, which loans out “story kits” that contain microphones and audio recorders, with the idea that local young people will interview their parents, grandparents and other elders in the community.
“We’ve been through a lot, here in the Katahdin area. I think if we have those memories and those stories saved for posterity, it can help us retain our identity,” he said. “It’s just another way to solve a community problem.”
Despite efforts to modernize and broaden the scope of services, public libraries still face uncertain futures and funding crunches.
The Millinocket Public Library itself closed outright when the town voted to defund it in 2015. After a community outcry, the library reopened later in 2015, and hired DeLaney in 2016. The nonprofit that now operates it has since raised $1.24 million to fully renovate the building. DeLaney said the renovations should be complete in April; the library is in temporary housing until then.
“I think one of the reasons we’ve been able to come back stronger is that we’re willing to take risks, and be nimble, and try new things,” DeLaney said. “And when you start demonstrating that what you do is really valuable to the community, things start to turn around. The libraries that are doing well are thinking that way. They are more than just a warehouse for books.”
Not that you can’t still check out books in Millinocket, or at any of the state’s more than 200 other public libraries.
“Books aren’t going anywhere,” McKenney said. “It’s just going to be books, and more.”