When Down East Books asked me to write a book about Maine sporting camps, I was excited. These iconic places define our state and need our help and support. We’ve gone from more than 300 of the traditional sporting camps to about three dozen, and some of those are struggling.
For the book, I’ve expanded beyond the traditional sporting camp — a lodge where food is served with adjoining cabins for sleeping — to the nontraditional camps. Some are just lodges. Some are housekeeping cabins. I added Maine Huts and Trails, for example, because even though they are not the traditional camps, they offer the outdoor experiences that people have sought for 150 years at our traditional sporting camps.
I also happen to be leading a campaign to expand the Dr. Shaw Memorial Library that serves my town of Mount Vernon and Vienna. As I get deeper into that campaign, it occurs to me that libraries have a lot in common with sporting camps. And just as it saddens me when I read the histories about some of our amazing sporting camps that are now closed, I grieve for the libraries — mostly in rural areas — that have closed.
Recently I learned that a foundation I had hoped would award our library a grant for our project, donates only to libraries with an annual budget of more than $100,000. That rules out most of the rural libraries that are struggling and are so important to their small communities. I have said more than once that our expansion project is not about sustaining our library, it is about sustaining our community.
Our annual budget is less than $40,000, we are open just 16 hours a week, and even then, only because we are blessed with a terrific group of volunteers. But I would argue that the Dr. Shaw Memorial Library is just as important to Mount Vernon and Vienna as is the Portland library to our state’s largest city. Probably more important.
Both libraries and sporting camps are called on today to offer much more than they did in the past. Many sporting camps failed because they lost their hunting and fishing guests. Camps that winterized their buildings and stayed open to serve guests year-round, offering experiences other than hunting and fishing, are doing fairly well. Those that did not are going, going, gone.
Libraries also have had to make significant adjustments to changing times in order to prosper and serve their communities. While I love books, our small library now provides everything from Wi-Fi and computer stations to movies and audio and e-books. With very limited space, it’s become difficult and challenging to fit everything in.
Perhaps even more challenging, libraries have become central to serving other community needs. I am especially proud of the effort our small library makes to meet the needs of our residents. We offer a wide variety of services, from assistance with tax returns to programs about issues of aging. Our focus on children is especially important. We sponsor lots of programs and activities for kids.
If you could have sat in on Dan Simon’s musical program for kids at the library in late August, seen the smiles on the faces of those children and heard them singing, you’d understand how important this is. Well, actually, you could not have sat in on this because there was no room for you. The small room we have for public presentations was crammed.
Simon’s musical program ended our “Be a Hero” summer series. Our local heroes, including a teacher and fire department and rescue people, read to the kids and engaged them in wonderful conversations. We also sponsored a summer reading program for kids, and those who participated received ice cream certificates at the end of the summer from the local store owner.
A recent news story — “Ellsworth librarian on crusade against loneliness” — summarized what I am saying: Mary McKillop, a librarian at the Ellsworth Public Library, focuses on services and events for her town’s older residents. We want to do that in Mount Vernon, and that is part of our expansion plan. It’s not just about the addition to our building.
We are still a long way from reaching our fundraising goal, but local folks already have donated $65,000, a significant sum for our two small towns, and we are determined to succeed — just like those sporting camp owners who refuse to give up, despite significant challenges. Please support your local library, and visit a Maine sporting camp soon.