Joanne Rogers sits behind her desk at the Orr’s Island Library on her last day as librarian, Oct. 31. She started at the library in 1986. (SAM LEMONICK PHOTO)
After 36 years behind the Orr’s Island Library desk, Oct. 31 was Librarian Joanne Rogers’ last day. It was not the way she wanted to end her long and influential tenure. But the library’s board of trustees decided this fall that the library needed changes, including new technology, and voted unanimously that Rogers was no longer the right person for the job. On Nov. 26, the board announced that Anne Wilkes would be the next librarian.
Assistant Librarian Maura Donovan resigned from her job at the same time that Rogers was forced out, saying she didn’t feel comfortable with the board’s management of the library anymore.
“I’m going to go home tonight and cry,” Rogers told the Anchor at the beginning of her final library shift.
Board President Daniel Hoebeke praised Rogers, saying, “Joanne made tremendous contributions over her 35 years.” But, he says, the roles of a library and its librarian have changed since Rogers was hired.
Rogers’ imprints are visible all over the library. Rogers was hired in 1986, when she was running a used bookstore out of her home on Bailey Island. The library’s board chair at the time, John Webster, asked if she’d like the job, saying she must know something about books.
The library was just a single room when Rogers started. A lean-to on the back wall served as a storage room and an outhouse. “I was lucky I knew the neighbors,” Rogers says now.
In her time, the library added several more rooms, not to mention indoor plumbing. Rogers built collections of DVDs and jigsaw puzzles, and a herd of stuffed animals for children to cuddle while they read.
Rogers collected art and artifacts that now decorate the walls and shelves. She says she willingly accepts anything that someone thinks would belong there. One patron donated an antique wooden Noah’s Ark, a family heirloom that’s missing some of its animals. Photographer and Harpswell resident Robert Freson donated a portrait of actress Sofia Loren that hangs next to the library’s fireplace. In the history room are pictures of fishermen with prize fish, as well as a 1925 photograph of a Ku Klux Klan picnic in Harpswell, accompanied by a short contextual description of the white supremacist group’s presence in Maine.
Across the room, a small flock of metal shorebirds sits atop the bookshelves. Rogers remembers spotting them at a local yard sale, but not having enough money to buy them. A fisherman who knew her from the library started collecting money from others at the yard sale until they had enough to buy the sculptures for her.
Rogers makes it clear how much she wants the library to be a welcoming place. She brings the day’s newspaper from home for a patron who likes to read it. And she’s always ready to recommend a new book to her regulars, or steer them away from one they might not like. “I know what they want when they walk in the door,” she says.
But she sees her role as larger than that. “You don’t just sit behind a desk and pass out books,” she says. Rogers maintains what she describes as a slush fund with donations from patrons. The money is for people in the community whom she knows sometimes need a little extra.
“I don’t understand why that stuff isn’t more important than scanning books,” Rogers says.
Donovan, the outgoing assistant librarian, has her own story about Rogers. Donovan was having a hard time adjusting to changes in her life when she moved to Orr’s Island in 2014. At the library, Rogers asked her if she wanted to do some weeding in the library’s garden, then started giving her money to buy new plants. Soon she was volunteering inside the library too, where she helped to digitize the library’s catalog.
The opportunities Rogers gave her at the library were a gift, Donovan says.
Without Rogers, Donovan says, she fears the library will lose some of its charm. Rogers not only knew what regulars liked to read, she remembered their library card numbers by heart. And even though Donovan knows the library’s paper due date cards — no barcodes or scanners there — are outdated, she says, “I think more people love it than hate it.”
But Hoebeke, the board president, said the changing role of a librarian became particularly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were forced to use the internet rather than visit their library in person.
From informal conversations with the community, the board believes technology will be the library’s most valuable resource in the future. The library finished digitizing its catalog earlier this year, and Hoebeke says introducing barcodes to check books in and out could be one of the first changes the library makes. A digital catalog would let patrons search for and reserve books online, he says.
The board may do a formal community survey this spring to get a better idea of what people want. Other ideas include expanding the library’s collection based on reader preferences, like buying more young adult and children’s books.
The board also wants the library to serve Harpswell in other ways. Hoebeke says hundreds of people have already used the library’s free Wi-Fi, introduced during the pandemic lockdowns and available from outside. A new kitchenette and generator could also make the library useful as a warming center for people who need one.
It appears that the board did not anticipate or plan for Rogers’ tenure to end so abruptly. Hoebeke says the board did everything it could to make the process of replacing Rogers smooth and easy, given her long service and role at the library. “It just didn’t work,” he says.
Hoebeke and board Treasurer Hugh Hardcastle described a series of conversations with Rogers and a few board members during the late summer and early fall in which they laid out their vision for changes at the library.
Those conversations convinced the board that Rogers was not the librarian they wanted for that transformation. They voted unanimously on Oct. 3 to offer her the choice to resign or be fired, according to Hoebeke. Based on those conversations, the board also determined it couldn’t find a way to make a seamless transition to the next librarian. Hoebeke and another board member told Rogers their decision in person on Oct. 6.
A letter they gave her says that given the changes the board wanted to make, “The librarian must be an active leader and visionary.” In the letter, the board also offers to name Rogers “Librarian Emerita,” an honorific she has rejected.
Hoebeke says the board also wanted to throw a party in her honor. “Maybe in the future when things settle down,” he says.
The board has received two letters criticizing its decision, according to Hoebeke, adding that the negative responses seemed to be based on incorrect information. But, he says, the response has otherwise been overwhelmingly positive in his conversations with patrons.
A committee of five current and former board members reviewed applications for the position. Hoebeke, who is not involved in that process, says the committee received 20 applications and interviewed four candidates.
The committee unanimously recommended Wilkes and the board, with the exception of Wilkes, unanimously voted to hire her. Wilkes did not participate in the deliberations or vote, and resigned her roles as trustee and secretary of the board upon accepting the job. In a statement, the board highlighted Wilkes’ love of books and breadth of reading interests, as well as her technological expertise and leadership of a digitization project at the library.
In early October, the board had considered appointing Wilkes to the position after hearing that the Cundy’s Harbor Library had struggled to attract applicants when Librarian Karen Schneider retired in 2019. But with the changes they envisioned, Hoebeke says, the trustees decided they should cast a wider net. He says the number of applications exceeded the board’s expectations.
The board posted job ads with the Maine Association of Nonprofits, the Maine Library Association, and the employment website Indeed. Hoebeke says both Rogers and Donovan had been welcome to apply for the position. Neither one did.
The library closed for most of November to give the board time to hire a new librarian and finish setting up a new used bookstore in a former storage room, which is now open.
For Donovan, the board’s process felt dysfunctional. “Everything kind of turned into a big mess,” she says. She felt like there was a lack of communication from the board, and like they weren’t listening to her ideas for the library.
Donovan said conversations she had with the board about a year ago, regarding her future at the library, left her with the impression she might take over as librarian when Rogers was ready to retire. Hoebeke says that was never the board’s plan, nor did its members mean to give Donovan that impression.
For board Treasurer Hardcastle, one positive thing that emerged during the fraught process is that the board has become more deeply involved in the library’s operation. “I think that’s wonderful,” he says. “For years, John Webster and Joanne Rogers pretty much ran things. The board met and nodded and said OK.”
Hoebeke agrees. With everything the board is envisioning for the library, he says, “I think there’s a level of excitement on the part of the board that I’ve never seen before.”
Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.