Eva Murray: ‘A tiny, happy place’
Most of the media references to Matinicus, if they aren't repeating some over-boiled version of "Lobster Wars" or indulging in clichés about rugged islanders living a unique lifestyle or a simpler life, itemize what this community does not have. I do the same myself, all the time, for one hopefully-legitimate reason or another. We cannot fault that tendency: the few dozen who live here are rightfully proud of getting by without many of society's presumed necessities.
We do just fine without mall shopping or traffic lights or expedited delivery or drive-through eateries; we manage without a local high school or a physician, and we somehow carry on without an ice cream store, a coffee shop, or anywhere for beer and pizza, although none of us would mind those one bit, should anybody be inspired.
That having been said, this is not quite the bush, the outback or Robinson Crusoe's "desert island." This town can offer a few rather civilized amenities. In recent years our community has built a playground, created a Historical Society, renovated the school, started a recycling project that has grown into a fairly well-rounded solid-waste mechanism, resurfaced the airstrip and bought a brand new shiny orange Kubota tractor with a snow blower to maintain that airstrip — perhaps the only piece of new equipment ever to touch these shores.
This fall, we founded a library.
To be sure, when it opens in the spring of 2016, the Matinicus Island Library won't look like much on the outside. We have no dignified stone building and we will be doing without a pair of lion statues out front, an antique map room upstairs, or the classic stern and tweedy librarian shushing children from behind a marble desk. In the usual style of journalism about Matinicus, there is the list of what we don't have: we don't have the Dewey decimal system or library cards or late fees or any chance at a hushed and reverent silence. There will surely be no need for that.
The library's physical plant at this point is just an 8-foot by 20-foot Shed City shed, originally brought to the island as a utility shack and sternman's camp, but which spent recent summers as a sort of clubhouse for younger folks (and I do not mean little children) who, according to the speculation of neighbors, were in mind to avoid the prying eyes of their elders. Whatever; I couldn't really say. Now, perhaps much to these younger folks' disgust, their purported den of iniquity will become a fine and upstanding bastion of literacy and knowledge.
Well, more likely, a bastion of detective novels, how-to books, the current issue of National Fisherman, and a place to connect online and post beach photos to Facebook.
Matinicus Island currently has no "wireless hotspot" where transient Internet users can check their messages or look up anything online. With no café, no ferry terminal, no public hangout of any sort, and very minimal cell reception, visitors often find themselves deeper in the boondocks than they had anticipated. Our tiny library will offer that service, something that will no doubt be appreciated by both summer visitors and those homeowners who occasionally find strangers parked on their doorsteps.
Of course, it is our little neighborhood — not the summer sailors, bored cottage renters and isolation-phobic tradesmen — who are our real clientele. This island already has a growing, although un-curated and random, collection of "loaner books" in one of our recycling sheds. As appreciation for that little "trash shed library" has grown, it has become obvious that people want, and will care for, such a thing out here on the rock. Don't let the stereotypes fool you; it's a long winter, and reading is important to us.
We hope to have our nascent library recognized by the Maine School and Library Network, and to eventually have our Internet through them. This was in fact the initial impetus for the whole library project. Last year Matinicus had no school-aged children on the island. In June of 2015, despite firm assertion on the part of our Superintendent of Schools that there would be enrolled students the following year (and indeed, there now are,) MSLN disconnected service to our school. Reconnection was, for some reason, an exceedingly drawn-out and laborious process. The connection provided by MSLN is much more than household subscriber Internet; it supports the school's Tandberg videoconferencing unit, useful for meetings such as fisheries and energy-related informational workshops organized by the Island Institute, University of Maine courses for professional development and adult continuing education, special services or counseling that may be required by community members including students, and routine inter-connectivity among all of Maine's one-room island schools. This level of service would not be affordable without MSLN.
While politicians and technology experts talk about universal broadband coverage to rural Maine and the rest of the world, we saw the plug pulled here because of a misunderstanding about our school. In a tiny one-room school, an isolated year without kids does not mean the school is legally closed. We've had periods of time with zero students before, and no doubt it'll happen again. We intend to do all we can to minimize the disruption to services that make our school — and our town — a viable place to return to.
So, in defiance of a shrinking wintertime population, and in the spirit of community feel-good projects that bring people together anywhere, we're to have a library. There will be a small, select collection of books with an informal circulation policy, including a collection of Maine and island-themed fiction and non-fiction; we'll have up-to-date issues of popular magazines to share, cutting down on both the cost of multiple personal subscriptions and the weight of our recycling; we plan to host "story hour" during the summer for the little guys, and possibly "tech help night" or similar community knowledge-sharing events in the winter for the grown-ups. And we'll have a place where, with their own device, anybody can get on free “wireless."
If we have another winter like last year, we might start by lending out snowshoes rather than books.
The crowning touch of the whole project may be the solar panel, though. By way of an experiment, the library will sport photovoltaic cells on the roof, powering this mighty little institution with solar energy. There are a number of island residents who are curious about photovoltaics and would like a chance to see, test and learn about such a set-up before considering such an investment for their own home. We envision our little solar electric rig as a sort of a community laboratory, where anybody interested can observe, gather data and examine the equipment up close. The power company on Matinicus has a few questions of its own about "homemade" power, and our very small island grid, and we hope that this will prove an interesting and valuable learning experience.
The Matinicus Island Library Association is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and is currently raising funds for the renovation of the shed and for the photovoltaic equipment. As I write, the electrician is in, installing the wiring for outlets and lights. One of the neighbors called it "a tiny, happy place;" we have high hopes, and think that sounds like a pretty neat description.
If you would like to assist in building and/or funding the new library on Matinicus, tax-deductible donations are welcome and can be sent c/o the Matinicus Island Library Association, 74 South Road, Matinicus, ME 04851. Please do not send books as we have no storage.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus
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