Is Millinocket Memorial Library the Canary in the Coal Mine?

I'd much rather work in a library

I’d much rather work in a library

John Clark here, sharing a recent experience as well as some other scary possibilities facing the Maine library community. I was invited to be part of a brainstorming panel that met in the Millinocket town hall and discussed ideas and strategies that community members could use to keep their wonderful library from being closed completely. I don’t think I need to go into great depth about the fiscal struggles that town and those nearby are dealing with. If you drive through, you quickly notice how many homes are for sale and how many appear to be uninhabited. They’ve lost their paper mill which was a mainstay for a very long time and the trickle-down effect wasn’t anywhere close to the type Ronald Reagan tried to sell us.

As for the library, it wasn’t that long ago when the director worked a 40 hour week and the library was open 34. To do their part as a municipal department, the director, Lori Fitzgerald and her staff cut back severely, to a point where the library is open 15 hours weekly and the childrens librarian and the other staff member work 9 hours each week. The drastic cuts saved $46,000 in wages in 2014, but even that may not be sufficient to save it from closure. I can attest to the fact that it’s extremely busy, even if open very limited hours. There was a program for kids going on downstairs and an older group was meeting upstairs. The public access computers were in use and to my great delight, as I chatted with the staff because I arrived early to be certain I would find the right location, a lady approached the desk to return three books. As she passed them over, she said, “and I’m here to pick up Death Dealer which is on reserve for me.”

Millinocket Memorial Library

Millinocket Memorial Library

I turned to her and grinned. “My sister wrote that book.” A lively discussion between the patron, myself and the staff about Kate’s books ensued. It’s always great fun when moments like these happen here in Maine. One of my other habits when visiting libraries is to browse the sale rack if they have one and buy what looks interesting or salesworthy. I bought 12 books for a dollar each before heading down to the town hall.

There were five panelists, me, author and columnist (as well as a trustee for the Dr. Shaw Memorial Library in Mount Vernon) George Smith, Valerie Osborne, current library consultant for the Northeastern Library district and former long time director of the Old Town Public Library, Hildie Lipson, former Executive Director of MaineShare and former Chair of a highly successful capital campaign at the Cary Memorial Library in Wayne with 30 years of fundraising experience, and moderator Chet York who put the evening together. There were 20 or so in the audience and the panel discussion was live-streamed over the local cable access channel.

First, let me say that I was greatly honored to be invited. I do have some pretty successful experiences in library promotion and I am always grateful when an opportunity to give something back to a profession that has treated me so well, comes my way. Losing your library does far more to a town than even those intimately involved can imagine until it has happened and then it’s too late. I’ll get to some of them after I share what we panelists came up with.

A dead paper mill is sad and scary.

A dead paper mill is sad and scary.

After we were introduced, Chet asked each of us specific questions that he’d given us in advance so we could have time to think of our best bits of advice. In terms of value of the library to a community, George noted that children in towns with public libraries do better academically. He also noted that libraries are natural breeding grounds for future writers and that writing groups aimed at kids are a valuable program that libraries offer. (I’m on board with that, the time that I offered a class for teen writers, one girl went on to write for a local newspaper while still in high school.)

Hilde’s experience as a fundraiser came in the form of this observation: Wayne’s population is 1,000; increases to 2,000 in summer. Cary Memorial Library is a nonprofit. Total budget is $64,000; they get $6,000 from Town. An annual Appeal Letter is bringing in $15,000 at this point. First rule of fundraising: Ask! Give examples of what money will be used for. Send Thank You’s within 24 hrs. Give many donation levels. They have 15-20 funding sources, including book sales 3 times per year (raising ~ $4,000/yr.). George agreed and added the following. He suggests sending 3 letters per year, increasing the amount asked for. Build relationships! He also suggested drawing on locally skilled people to do high-interest seasonal fundraisers. As an example, he talked about an amateur mycologist who gives mushroom walks at different times of the year as a fundraising activity for the library in Mount Vernon.

George suggested talking to big donors face to face when asking for money, while Hilde noted that it’s a big deal to hand write short notes on Appeals letters as well as on thank you letters to prior donors, mentioning those gifts and what they were used for.

I shared some things I learned in my stint as the library director in Boothbay Harbor and that I’ve continued to do in Hartland when I’ve had the chance. You need to say affirmatively and often to regular patrons, “When you die, we better be in your Will!” This was something I didn’t do often or well in Boothbay Harbor and I watched the big nonprofits haul in over six million while we got a paltry $2000 in bequests. Publicity with a regular newspaper article is a gold mine if you have one that will carry your writing. I had one for the five years I was in BBH, and it ran weekly. I had a similar one in a weekly newspaper published in Newport until it went out of business. Use print, Facebook and blogs to let people know what you need (e.g. supplies, compost, shelving school stuff, gifts for the annual Fireman’s Auxiliary Christmas gift program, etc.). You can’t get what people don’t know you need.

Mt. Katahdin is awesome from any viewing angle.

Mt. Katahdin is awesome from any viewing angle.

“Sell the value of what people gave.” When I get a donation of books, DVDS, etc. I make sure I tell the giver exactly what happens to anything they bring in. Here’s a perfect example, Terry, the guy who manages the town transfer station and I went into a dumpster after he realized the guy who had dumped 8 big boxes of books removed from a retired minister’s house HAD NOT offered them to me first as he had claimed. We rescued enough to fill the back of my Chevy hatchback and I put any that were in decent condition on Amazon. That load of ‘trash’ has netted in excess of $500 for the library DVD collection. Every time I sell another one I make a point of telling Terry and thanking him again. In 2014, I made $4,500 for the library selling donated and discarded books on Amazon. I also gave away 700 children’s books per year that came from donated stuff. People are far more likely to give a second and third time when they’re told exactly how their stuff benefits the library.

These observations led to a flurry of brainstorming that pulled in some comments from the audience as well as more ideas that have worked elsewhere. Here’s a list of some of them: Invite a bunch of teens/tweens to the library and have them brainstorm what they really want the library to offer. Valerie noted that when she did this at Old Town, three things that came out of it and were extremely successful, not to mention quite surprising were ballroom dancing (ten couples paid a nominal fee for a ten week session), meeting with a psychologist who helped them sharpen their skills in the area of assertiveness and communication with their parents, and a live simulated courtroom experience where they recreated trials that fascinated them.

Other cool ideas included a teen writing contest, determining the cost of supporting one hour of library operation and inviting local donors to sponsor library time for a specific period of time. Kate and her husband Ken did this for the Concord, MA. Public library several years ago when the Saturday hours for the summer were eliminated. One idea we hope to pull off this summer in Hartland, but that I neglected to mention is a sidewalk art show for teens. We’re hoping to get discarded cardboard, wallboard and plywood so kids can do some creative graffiti and art and win prizes.

See if you can work with the local bottle redemption center to agree to accept returnables and put the $$ in a library account. Before the redemption place in Hartland closed. We had such a deal in place for the town swimming pool.

Another area we talked about a lot was the recruitment and use of volunteers. Small public libraries can’t operate without them. Library staff, particularly directors should develop a bucket list of tasks of all complexity levels that they’d love to get done, but probably won’t have time to complete. Valerie suggested creating volunteer job descriptions and said she had done this at Old Town. Involving kids in volunteer activities is a big way to get the word out there that you have a kid friendly library and that their wants and interests are valued.

I also suggested that creating a display that gave citizens an idea of what would be lost if the library closed, would help non-library users realize just how much a library provides to the community. This year, for example, both the IRS and Maine Revenue Service cut way back of sending out tax forms and booklets. That left Maine’s public libraries as a primary, if not the primary source for anything dealing with taxes. At the Hartland Public Library, we have at least two people every day use our public access computers to file their income taxes. Close the library and where can they go?

The same applies for wireless internet access. We offer 20 megabits of bandwidth that Valerie says is going to increase greatly this summer (by as much as a factor of ten). Granted in towns where McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, etc operate, there are other wireless options, but in towns like Hartland, Solon, Bingham and Canaan, we’re the only game in town. For people who are vacationing or who live so far out that DSL isn’t an option, being able to sit on our front steps or in their car and use our free internet connection is a very big deal. Close the library ant it goes away as well.

Most job applications are now accessed through the internet. Sure, someone in Hartland or similar small towns can drive the 20 or so miles to access computers at a career center, but when you’ve been out of work for six months, the cost of gas to go there might be a deal breaker. In addition, librarians are extremely well versed in answering questions in ways that make people feel comfortable instead of stupid, so we have ways of helping people’s stress levels subside. Close the library and this goes away as well.

From a much slower and more prosperous time.

From a much slower and more prosperous time.

Ever hear of MARVEL? If not, shame on you. It’s an amazing collection of databases purchased by the Maine State Library, Maine Infonet and the University system. Librarians use it all the time and are well versed in helping people find what they need very quickly. Need five peer reviewed articles on bipolar illness in full text? Piece of cake. Want to see which of your ancestors can be found in Ancestry.com? Easy as pie. Granted experienced researchers can dig into these without our help, but students and family members reeling from the news that someone they care about just got diagnosed with something they never heard of, are more in the ‘deer in the headlights’ category. We can help them quickly and efficiently. Close us and this goes away s well.

Like movies or TV series, but can’t afford Red Box rentals or Netflix? Fear not, most libraries have decent DVD collections (in Hartland we have an absolutely decadent one). If your local library doesn’t have the one you want, they can easily borrow it from another library and have it within a week at little or no cost to you. The same goes for almost any book you want to read. Shut your local public library and this goes away as well.

The reason I headlined this blog entry asking if Millinocket was the canary in the coal mine is because they ARE NOT the only Maine library in jeopardy of closing. How do you think the closing of the mill in Bucksport will affect their library? There is, however, a much greater threat looming over every library that depends upon town financial support. The governor’s proposed cut in local revenue sharing, if passed, will kill off more small libraries than anyone unfamiliar with the library system and the magnitude of decrease per town can imagine. Don’t believe me? Go here and see for yourself. http://www.memun.org and scroll down until you see 01/23/2015 – 2016 Municipal Revenue Sharing Figures and click to download the spreadsheet.

Hartland, for example has a population of 1782 and would get cut by 174, 583, or almost $100 for each person in town. I’ve been involved at the town level long enough to know there’s no way in hell that the library’s funding won’t go away if this cut goes through. There simply isn’t enough flexibility for anything else to happen. If you’re a Maine resident, please take time to look at the numbers for your town and then pick up the phone and call your legislators.

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10 Responses to Is Millinocket Memorial Library the Canary in the Coal Mine?

  1. Kate Flora says:

    This article belongs in every newspaper in Maine and in national library publications. Too often articles simply whine….but you point out the many values (some unknown) and many solutions.

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  2. Joyce Lovelace says:

    In a small town – especially in our devastated rural towns – our libraries are one of the still functioning centers of community. While I can no longer run into my neighbors at the local grocery store (it closed), I still see and talk with members of our extended community at the library.
    A friendly librarian who can remember names and likes kids is a wonderful asset for a small library.
    The ability to access wifi from the parking lot is a great idea and service – especially when the library can only be open a few hours a week. One more great thing about small town libraries is that they HAVE parking!
    The local library is an asset to other near by businesses. As long as I’m here I’ll get my gas at this station. I’ll go to the little feed store for my dogcatcritter food, etc.
    I don’t have to wait in line to check out, I get local news (and I mean news not gossip), the staff usually have time to answer my questions.

    Little libraries are like the Tardis – much bigger than they appear from the outside, and librarians are Dr. Who, What, Where, When, Why and How!

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  3. Janet Adelberg says:

    There are lots of good ideas here. At our library (the Cary Memorial in Wayne) we have a team of volunteers who run various fundraising projects. It is important that the librarian have time to be the librarian.
    Another comment I’d like to offer: If you go the route of an annual solicitation letter, I would NOT send 2 or 3 letters a year as was suggested. An annual, predictable request for support makes sense. (We do ours in the Spring. They know it’s coming.) If someone makes a nice donation, and then is asked again in three months for the same thing, it is sort of offensive and leads to donor fatigue. We’ve done letters twice a year only three times in the 28 years I’ve been there, and each time we had an extraordinary/special request. I would make a strong solicitation, maintain a good mailing list, thank each donor, and share your success. (In thank you note, say “with your help we were able to raise over 6000.00 to increase the number of hours we can staff the library this year.”)
    Good luck, lots of folks are rooting for Millinocket!
    Janet Adelberg

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    • Jean says:

      I would not send a second or third notice to all donors on the list but it could go out to those past donors, who have not responded to the initial request. Generally the first request is sent out bulk rate. A follow up could go first class. When/if the mailing is returned, take that person off the list. Sometimes we don’t know who has moved, etc. until that mailing is returned. We always send a thank you, first as a thank you and second for the donor’s taxes.

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  4. A timely subject, John, not only because this issue comes up at town meetings in Wilton and Farmington where, year after year, selectmen try to cut the library budget and townspeople have to turn out to vote it back into the warrant, but also because in my WIP in the Liss MacCrimmon series I’m using the threat to close the Moosetookalook Public Library as a subplot (and a possible motive for murder). Don’t be surprised if some of the ideas in this blog turn up in the mouths of fictional characters at the “save the library” meeting.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn

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  5. lois brennan says:

    The wallkill library near me holds open meetings for knitting,fabric. Lots of arts and crafts. A local couple retired from Broadway produces a children’s theatre production. There is a Lego camp in the summer. The also host so m e bus trips. I have participated in knitting classes at the Gardiner library.

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  6. MCWriTers says:

    A note, too, to Maine residents … make sure you make a donation to the Maine Library system via your state tax return. The box is right there, to check …

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  7. Fascinating, and a great reminder on different ways to support our libraries.

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  8. Great post, John. The value of libraries cannot be overstated, especially in places dealing with economic woes, like Millinocket and Bucksport, where the closure of mills that were the largest employer will reverberate for a long time. I agree with Kate, you ought to publish this widely.

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  9. Jeannine Benson says:

    I think the idea of setting up a bottle drop off site is a very good idea. I summer in Phippsburg, ME, and last year the local elementary school was using this set up to raise money for a new basketball court. They had raised all the money they needed before the summer was over!

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