Libraries: The cost is little, the return great

By Maureen Milliken

We live in a cost versus return world. I never took economics in school, and I know if I did I would have stunk at it. I don’t know the accurate phrase for it, but what I’m talking about, basically, is the philosophy that if you’re going to pay for something you need to see a return in something tangible. Preferably money. If not money, goods.


Many people would like to see government run like a business, with a return on the “investment” of our taxes showing in… well, I’m not sure what. Free ice cream for everyone? Bonuses when we come in under budget?

The less tangible returns, like a well-educated population or an arts culture that can enrich a community and ultimately benefit it in ways more than just economic, are dismissed and frequently forgotten. People frequently say that the private sector will pick up where public money leaves off, but the private sector seems to want its free ice cream, too.

The whole cost versus return thing was on my mind recently as I took a road trip through Franklin County, the site of the fictional town in my Bernie O’Dea mystery series. I was fulfilling a self-imposed obligation that I’d put off for way too long: delivering copies of Cold Hard News, the first in the series, to libraries.

I was donating the books, whether the libraries liked it or not. It’s something I’d vowed to do long before my book was published last June.

Webster Library in Kingfield

Webster Library in Kingfield

I grew up in libraries and without them there would be no Cold Hard News. Who knows? There may not even be Maureen the newspaper editor or Maureen the productive member of society. I think most writers can say the same.

Donating my book, I figured, was the least I could do. Really, when you think about it, the very least. Still, it’s funny the reaction I sometimes get from people who believe I should try to push the libraries to buy it instead. Some libraries, I’ve found, already have, and I’m grateful. On the other hand, I’m not going to miss that few dollars (an attitude, I’m sure, that contributes to the hatred I feel from my oil dealer and mortgage company). It’s a small return to the libraries for the what they’ve given to me.

As I visited several Franklin County libraries a couple weeks ago, I was reminded, too, what warm and welcoming places they are. How great they smell and how good it feels to be in them. How I want to sink down in a row of books and just start reading.

It’s also hard not to be reminded of how they struggle daily to offer the basics, much less the extras that they do.

I spent half an hour talking to the librarian in Phillips about their programs. I spent another twenty minutes talking to the Kingfield librarian, who’d only been in the job a short time, but had big plans and a lot of optimism about what will be happening at Webster Library.

Phillips Public Library

Phillips Public Library

Then this happened in the last town I visited. The librarian looked at me with dismay when I offered my book (I’m not making that up). She didn’t want to take it. “We’d have nowhere to put it. You can see how small we are.” It was small, a very tiny, crowded room.

I assured her the book wasn’t self-published, was that the problem? Not really, but “If we took yours, we’d have to take everyone’s.”

I gave her my information sheet, complete with blurbs and all sorts of other great stuff, to reassure her it wouldn’t be a waste of shelf space. “The book has been fairly well-received,” I said.

I finally wore her down and she took it, saying maybe she could put it out on the table for people to read and see what they thought. If they liked it, it’s possible she could squeeze it in somewhere.

I walked away troubled. Not by the exchange so much (30 years in the newspaper business makes me fairly immune to people who aren’t in love with what I have to offer), but by the position the librarian was in that would force her to … reject a free book.

Let’s forget, for a second, the possible parade of horrific unreadable books that are being foisted on this tiny, remote west-central Maine library that would force a librarian to regard an author with horror when she tries to donate a book.

The issue is actually, I’m sure, that she’s fighting a constant battle of no space, probably little help and a diminishing budget with possibly little show of support from the community. And here I am barging in with a big smile and a book and it’s all too much.

So sad, not only for that library and librarian, but for that town.

Lithgow Library in Augusta

Lithgow Library in Augusta

When I moved back to Maine five years ago, I wanted to live in a town that was fairly centrally located between Augusta and Waterville, the two cities I’d be working in, but that also had a vibrant community and a story open year-round I could walk to. It never occurred to me to check out the library.

I’d grown up in Augusta, a few blocks from beautiful, wonderful Lithgow, which as I write this is undergoing an $11.5 million renovation.


Belgrade Public Library

When I landed in Belgrade, I found its library, like the one I visited a couple weeks ago in Franklin County, jammed into about 250 square feet of space in the community center. Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and a generous donation from Hammond Lumber, the Belgrade Public Library opened in a new, bigger building a year or two later. It gets a lot of support from the community, if not always from the town government or budget.

Had I known, when I moved to town, that there wasn’t a full-time, fully supported library that was embraced by the town government, I wonder what impact it would have had on my decision to live here? I’m not sure if it would have made me look somewhere else, but it definitely would have affected my decision.

Libraries cost money. The return, though, is immense. Priceless and uncountable.

I’m not just talking about their impact on lives of weird little girls who grow up to become mystery writers, but their impact on the community as a whole. The librarians in Phillips and Kingfield talked enthusiastically about their communities and the library’s role in it. It’s hard to believe that type of involvement isn’t felt by a community in rippling, uncountable ways.

This is National Library Week. I’m urging everyone to weigh the “cost” of their town’s library against the return, and let your library know — in a tangible way — that the cost is worth it.


Speaking of libraries, join me, and fellow mystery writers Kathy Lynn Emerson and Janet Morgan 1-3 p.m. Thursday at Lithgow Library in Augusta (i’s temporary location at the Ballard Center, East Chestnut Street, the old Augusta General Hospital), for a Sisters in Crime Speakers Panel discussion on The Modern Heroine as well as other other mystery-related topics. We’ll have books available and be happy to sign.

Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second, No News is Bad News, is due out this summer. Follow her on Twitter: @mmilliken47, or on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates on her website,


About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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13 Responses to Libraries: The cost is little, the return great

  1. Marian Stanley says:

    Wonderful initiative, Maureen. I’m glad you were not discouraged by one space-challenged librarian – what a strange response! Tell me – did you just show up at libraries or did you email or call ahead?
    The library was a lifesaver for me when I was a kid and, like you, libraries hold a special place in my heart.

  2. Thanks, Marian. I didn’t email or call ahead. I was just dropping off the book and not demanding someone speak to me, though at many they do. In Wilton, for instance, a volunteer took the book and my info sheet and I was fine with that.

  3. David Plimpton says:

    Thank you, Maureen, for the great description of the public benefits of libraries and the challenges they face. As many people know, in Maine, both as a cost and space saver for libraries and a service to the public (although perhaps a two-edged sword for authors and the print publishing industry), the Minerva and MaineCat online catalogues, easily searchable, allow library patrons to reserve books which their library doesn’t physically possess. Your “Cold Hard News” is listed about 10 times in each system.

    We use the South Portland library, a tremendous resource (including many programs, authors events, and a huge room dedicated to children’s and young teens’ books, where we have taken our grandchildren many times), because it is much closer to us than the Cape Elizabeth library.

    I am there at least twice a week and I would guess at least half of people visiting are picking up books reserved through the online catalogues. South Portland relies heavily on an almost continuous used book sale run by volunteers, as well as cash donations for collection purchases. It’s a shame the world of shrinking public resources and our subpar economy threatens to leave libraries out in the cold. We’re lucky they are so resilient, or at least they seem to be in Maine.

  4. Kate Collier says:

    Thought-provoking! I’ve had the privilege of working in libraries, and I know how much attention they pay to meaningful data, so I wouldn’t say the value is “uncountable.” But I agree there are intangibles that have immeasurable value, such as your satisfying experience of “sinking down” among the books. I feel surrounded with a warm blanket when I enter the stacks 🙂 As for accepting your book into the collection, there are expenses involved in cataloging, barcoding, and shelving a book. I’d be happy to have my book placed on display! Thanks for sharing such a range of experiences along with your love for libraries!

  5. Gram says:

    Our library is our community gathering place. They have books of course, but also programs for babes and first graders through teens and adults. Art exhibitions, pieces from the historical society, etc. My favorite place in town. I have been going to a library since I was two and reading since I was four. Love libraries.

  6. Lea Wait says:

    Yes — so many of us owe so much to libraries! If you’re in Maine, and you haven’t filed your state taxes yet, there is something else you can do: check off that little box that donates to the state library system. Not a big deal? Well — yes, it is. Library services have changed over the years, but their need for our support hasn’t. Happy Library Week!

  7. Jody says:

    Wonderful article. I couldn’t live without libraries. I’ve told my husband that if we ever move, there has to be a nearby public library. I grew up in a tiny town (900) people. The library was tiny, but I read books from there. Since I’ve grown up & moved away, that little library has expanded greatly. It is well supported by the town and people. My mother was on the board for a few years before she died.
    Where I live now, we have a marvelous library that recently expanded for the 3rd time in the last 30 years. It too is well supported.
    Thanks for offering books. It’s amazing how some people don’t realize the value in a library. It is also a shame that librarian didn’t have room for more. Hopefully she has interlibrary loan available to help her patrons.

  8. Barb Ross says:

    Interesting post, Maureen. I do a lot of library visits, and I always strikes me as amazing that two adjacent towns with basically the same demographics will have two entirely different libraries. You go to town one and the library is alive and busy, obviously a community gathering place, the librarian who invited you is well organized and the audience that turns up (and one always does in these towns) expects a lot because they’ve been trained to. In the next town, you could shoot a cannonball through the library and not hurt anybody, the librarian who invited you neglected to tell the librarian on duty you were coming, or to do any publicity, etc.

    I have no explanation for this, aside from it’s a question of what the town values and what the town government is willing to do in terms of great or poor staffing and budgets.

    At the New England Library Association two years ago, I listened to a group of librarians discussing how to manage the fact that they were overrun by books by local authors, so this is a real issue.

  9. Michael Marsh says:

    Unfortunately Maureen the internet is having the same effect on libraries as big box stores have had on Mom and Pop stores. Our generation have no troubles realizing what these things have to offer us and we try our best in pointing our children in the same direction, but the outside influences are overwhelming now. it is very frustrating to someone that wants to keep “Old School” alive, to me it would seem like a constant uphill battle, currently I am not a mentor of a young impressionable mind as for my son is 28 now, married but no children and my siblings live in Alaska with their families. I applaud your voice on what a library can offer and how it would be a shame if they were to become extinct…Keep talking Maureen, I listen.

  10. Nice post, Maureen, and such a nice instinct to donate books to all of the libraries in Franklin County. That one interaction may have been tough, but I’ll bet some people will be checking out that book. People love local stories, so you are right on!

  11. John Clark says:

    Terrific post. As a recently retired librarian who has visited more than 100 Maine libraries, I can attest to how many are doing more with less every day. If government were run like public libraries, they would be far more user friendly, cost less and leave a hell of a lot more people satisfied.

  12. Kitty Rodgers says:

    I have always said that I can’t live in a place that doesn’t have a good library and a bookstore at least close by. I lived a block from the library as a child and spent a lot of time there. It may have been in the municipal building (and much smaller than I remember it being when I was young) but it was the place I went to when I wanted to be in a different world – to read biographies of famous people, to read about other countries, and most of all to see someone else’s point of view. We are lucky now to have a great public library in our town, but the rest of our county isn’t as lucky and library hours and budgets are being cut. It is a resource that is necessary for our kids and for those who don’t have the luxury of buying their own books or having their own computer. Librarians are there to guide us where we want to go. I hope that we as citizens will always support and use public libraries.

  13. Margaret Hanson says:

    I love my local library! And I also love checking out the library in any town I visit, spending some time writing there if I can. The Curtis Library is a big library in a pretty big town (Brunswick, ME) but it has a wonderful “old-style” quiet room for working in, and a fireplace!

    Not sure if it’s okay to do this (please delete if not!) but I enjoyed reading this series of posts from another blog last summer, where she explores a number of small town libraries in the Adirondacks:

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