By BILL NEMITZ
The day the call came in to the Millinocket Memorial Library, Matt DeLaney thought it was some kind of thinly disguised con job.
“Congratulations,” the caller told him. “You’ve been named Maine’s 2018 Outstanding Librarian of the Year!”
Smooth, thought DeLaney, figuring it was a cagey library vendor on the other end. Now comes the part where he tries to sell me something.
Call it luck, or fate, or something in between. But whichever way you look at it – DeLaney found Millinocket or Millinocket found him – the Maine Library Association’s recognition of DeLaney as the state’s top librarian marks yet another step forward for a northern Maine community that simply refuses to fade back into the forest.
“I’m an introverted person,” DeLaney, 35, said during a recent interview in his small corner office. “I don’t like the attention being on me. But I got over that. I felt I really have to accept this for all everyone has done here.”
Much has been said about Millinocket’s dogged efforts to reinvent itself after the former Great Northern Paper mill – the initial reason for the town’s existence – went belly up in 2008.
Our Katahdin, a nonprofit economic development organization, has been hard at work envisioning a new local economy. In September, it landed a $5.3 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to rebuild and modernize the infrastructure at the old mill site.
Last February, Ligna CLT Maine announced it would begin manufacturing cross-laminated timber at the industrial site – bringing with it 100 new jobs.
Elsewhere, there’s talk of biotech fuels, innovative wood products, solar power and powerful data centers in search of a climate that can lower the cost of cooling their high-tech equipment.
At the same time, there’s growing excitement about outdoor recreation, from nearby Baxter State Park to the newly created Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
WELCOME TO MILLINOCKET
But if commerce is a community’s lifeblood, the local library is its soul. And here, too, Millinocket is resurgent.
Just over three years ago, amid an ever-worsening fiscal crisis, the town pulled the plug on its $160,000 annual allocation for the library. The money covered virtually all of the facility’s annual operating budget and, just like that, the place went dark.
Enter Martha Frost and Esther Gass.
“When it closed, we were like, ‘Oh my, we can’t have that,” recalled Frost, who had worked at the library since 2010.
Nor could the Friends of Millinocket Memorial Library, until then a loosely knit group of locals who almost went out of business themselves until, suddenly, the survival of the library itself was on the line.
Outraged by the closure, the group quickly reconstituted and successfully petitioned the Town Council to restore $30,000 to help keep the lights and heat on while volunteers, led by Frost and Gass, ran the place and charted a viable path forward.
“We thought it would be easy,” Frost said with a laugh.
Soon realizing that they needed professional help, the volunteers posted an ad on a national library list server during the summer of 2016 seeking what seemed like the impossible: a capable, experienced librarian willing to move to northern Maine and breathe new life into a facility that had closed, reopened for three days a week and was now hanging by a thread.
“It was an unlikely, unstable job,” recalled DeLaney, who at the time worked as administrative director of the Onondaga County Public Library in Syracuse, New York. Speaking for himself and his partner, Emilie Tisch, he added, “We didn’t really take it too seriously when we first learned about it.”
But then DeLaney made the first of several “recon missions” to Millinocket and, with each visit, saw a long-held dream coming true.
“I had reached the top of this organization, managed a $15 million budget, 150 employees,” he said of his previous job.
Yet, truth be told, he was far from fulfilled. A lover of libraries since he was a kid growing up outside of Albany, he’d always hoped to apply his master’s degree in information services from SUNY Albany not to a big-city operation, but rather to a small library in a small town with big aspirations.
In addition to the Maine job, DeLaney applied to three others – in Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts. But the Millinocket job tugged on him like a guiding star.
Meanwhile, the volunteers’ online ad drew a modest but hopeful response – “under 10,” Frost recalled. But the application from DeLaney, who had run two smaller libraries before heading for Syracuse, stood out.
“From the get-go, he was the one we wanted,” Frost said. “Just a brilliant resume.”
And so it came to be. The day DeLaney and Tisch pulled up to their new home two years ago next month, they found their house and yard already festooned with banners and signs hailing Millinocket’s new librarian.
“I felt immediately welcomed,” DeLaney said. “And I felt that I was immediately putting the library and putting myself at the table for exciting things that were happening.”
FREE LIBRARY CARDS
The library’s annual operating budget, thanks to fundraising far and wide, is now back up to $100,000 – not counting the 500 hours per month put in by a cadre of 25 volunteers. The doors are now open six days a week.
Since the library’s board of directors went with DeLaney’s recommendation for free cards to anyone living in or owning property in Maine, membership has shot up from around 1,200 to 2,000 and counting.
Thanks to the Gloria C. MacKenzie Foundation, library patrons now have access to six new desktop computers, six loaner laptops, four loaner hotspots and internet access via not one, but two 1-gigabyte connections with the outside world.
Then there’s the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which selected Millinocket as one of five locations nationally for a pilot project that turns unused “white space” between television frequencies into internet access points. That means free internet at the municipal pool and at Veterans Memorial Park – all compliments of the local library.
The library’s Digital Learning Lab offers free instruction on computer and internet use for two hours each Saturday morning, while the Katahdin Gear Hub (soon to be rechristened the Katahdin Gear Library) provides downtown storefront space for card-carrying patrons to borrow mountain bikes and for local kids to work on their own equipment.
The Katahdin Story Booth Project, which has expanded to area schools, aims to capture the oral histories of those who knew Millinocket back when it was a boomtown powered by Great Northern, as well as those who have struggled to get by since it all came crashing down. So far, more than 60 hours of recordings have been compiled.
“We took a closet downstairs and put two chairs in it, a little table, a pitcher of water, microphone, dim lighting and we invited people to come in (and tell their stories),” DeLaney said. “We’re so focused on figuring out where to go and what we can be and how to survive that I think there’s this feeling that we’re going to lose our heritage.”
Finally, the Library Centennial Renovation capital campaign has, since its kickoff last winter, raised just over $900,000 of its $1.25 million goal, bolstered by a $500,000 grant from the Next Generation Foundation.
LIBRARY OF THE FUTURE
When it’s completed at the end of 2019, the “future” library will include a redesigned entrance accessible to all, improved space for browsing the 22,000-book collection or navigating the high-speed computers and, above all, spaces large and small for community groups to gather. The largest community room will be called, quite fittingly, the Katahdin Think Tank.
Drive around town these days and you’ll see, standing out amid the political signs, bright yellow placards proclaiming “I (heart) My Library.” They mark the homes of library “ambassadors” who have attended an open house, donated to the campaign and invited friends and neighbors to join the effort.
Albert Fowler, a retired local language arts teacher, chairs the capital campaign. His family roots go back six generations to 1829, when Millinocket was first settled by Thomas and Betsy Fowler.
As a child, Fowler remembers using the old library on Central Street. Then, after the current library opened in 1963, his children would cut through a neighbor’s backyard each afternoon to do their homework and, whether they knew it or not, weave themselves into the community.
Fowler calls those who rose up to save the library “heroes and heroines.”
“They took on the power structure in the community and they didn’t have any resources at all,” he said. “But they had that passion.”
Turning to DeLaney, the 2018 Maine Outstanding Librarian of the Year, Fowler proudly added, “For some reason, he said he wanted to be here.”