Calais Free Library Plays Integral Role in Community

Community members of all ages enjoyed celebrating Dr. Seuss at the Calais Free Library on Saturday, an event that included activities, festivities, and cake. (Facebook photo)

By Lura Jackson

 

Since opening its doors in 1893, Calais Free Library has been a bastion of information for the extended Calais community. Originally founded through the efforts of James S. Pike, the library was specifically created to be a free and open resource for anyone that needed it. In the 125 years of its existence, the library has continually evolved to meet the needs of the modern public. Today, its services have expanded well beyond being a book repository to include technology education, social gatherings, and personal improvement, making it a truly irreplaceable asset for the area.

Originally, the library was established to enable access to nonfiction, fiction, and reference books, a task it served well and without interruption for nearly a century. Four years after it opened, the American Library Association praised the library for offering “the best reading for the greatest number at the lowest cost.” 

The focus on primarily offering access to literature began to shift in the 1990s with the emergence of the digital age. With personal computers now becoming a reality, the library took center stage as a place to teach the public about how to use the powerful but unfamiliar devices. Kathleen Staples, now the director of the Calais Free Library, recalls how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided public libraries with computers for exactly that purpose. “People who would have never had the means to own computers were able to set up email accounts and learn how to look up stuff back before Google was even a term,” Staples said. 

The gifted computers opened an important door for library patrons and the library staff itself. “We accepted the free computers and began learning right along with our patrons about this new, ever-changing resource,” Staples said. Today, with many patrons having achieved a basic understanding of how to use computers, the staff focuses on imparting a new kind of digital literacy. “As a society, we are now bombarded with so much information that we are now trying to teach patrons how to recognize legitimate sources and to safely have an online presence.”   

Networking – particularly digital networking – is a new focus of modern libraries. The Calais Free Library has benefitted from its relationship with Axiom Technologies of Machias, a group that has frequently provided teachers for various free technology-themed classes including Powerpoint, Facebook for Business, and Quick Books. In addition, the library offers teleconferencing capabilities to enable people to have video-based meetings with others across the state. 

Even those with a penchant for appreciating only hard copies of books benefit from the networking capabilities of the Calais Free Library. “If a patron wants a book and we don’t have it, we will move heaven and earth to get it for them,” Staples said, describing how the library can access any book in the state through the Interlibrary Loan system or even books from around the country via Bangor Public Library. 

Engaging the youth in the community to promote a desire to read along with an enjoyment of learning is another major focus of Calais Free Library. Appropriately, it delivers books to children at schools on the Little Red Wagon, sponsors a reading program throughout the summer, and has reading aloud sessions that are open to the public. “Every year we encourage school children to join the summer reading program because we know through research that children who continue to read throughout the summer maintain and lots of time increase their reading skills and are ready for a new school year,” Staples said, adding that such programs “create a surplus of reading skill.”

Aside from its many technology-themed classes and social events, the library offers an extensive genealogical resource for the community. The downstairs area is filled with family records and copies of past newspapers, all of which can be quickly and easily requested for review. “One would find in our safe storage the history of Calais, history of Washington and Charlotte counties, cemetery records, funeral records, old school records, Hayden diaries, local historian Ned Lamb newspaper clippings, Calais Academy and Calais high school yearbooks, a large collection of local data on the American civil war, and copies of The Calais Advertiser predating the Civil war to present,” Staples described, adding that the Frank Fenderson local antique postcard and picture collection is also available upon request.

While the library has changed in many ways since its original inception, its goal of providing relevant, accurate and appropriate information to the community remains its driving force. “The job of the library is to know our community and the issues facing our community,” explained Staples. “We provide resources that reflect all sides of issues going on in our culture.”

The week of April 8-14 is the 60th National Library Week, with the theme chosen being “Libraries Lead”. Everyone is invited to come to the Calais Free Library to help celebrate its existence and to appreciate its unique role in the community.