History of the Library

The Monhegan Memorial Library

By: Alta Ashley (written in 1984 edited and updated in 2008)

            Monhegan is known to have had some kind of library as far back as the early nineteenth century. But little is known of this library: Where it was housed, how many and what kinds of books it contained, who used it and even when it ceased to exist. We do know, however, that in the early twentieth century there was no library as such for general use. Books were loaned to guests by various inns and rooming houses, and the school had a library of its own of very limited scope. These books were read and reread so often by children eager for reading material that their contents were known almost by heart and their pages dog-eared and torn. It took a tragic event, the wish of a young island girl and the zeal of a summer resident to bring into being the present Monhegan Memorial Library.

The weather on August 8, 1926 was clear and beautiful, in contrast to that if the previous day, which had brought heavy rains, high winds and a raging sea – a “line storm,” now better known as a hurricane. Jackie (Jacqueline) Barstow was to celebrate her eleventh birthday with five other children from the summer colony. Because of the lingering rough seas, the scheduled fishing party with Capt. Earl S. Field was called off and a picnic to the headlands on the back side of the island was substituted.

In mid-morning the six children set off for their picnic spot under the supervision of fifteen-year-old Edward Vaughan. However, instead of picnicking on top of the headlands – as they had been instructed – they chose a flat ledge at the base of Black Head as their picnic site. Jackie (sitting apart from the others) gathered shells from nearby seaweed clusters and spread them about her. She was oblivious to the seas crashing on the rocks just below her and unaware of the “seventh wave” or “comber” which rises unheralded and sweeps to sea everything in its wake. Suddenly, the other children watched in horror as they saw Jackie enveloped by a huge wave and washed into the swirling waters of Squeaker Cove – scene of many a shipwreck.  Edward, a strong swimmer, jumped immediately into the surf, caught Jackie’s belt and succeeded in lifting her onto the rocks. However, before either of them had reached safety, a second “comber” pulled them both back into the maelstrom, and they disappeared into the undertow. Meanwhile, Oliver Cabot, one of the older boys, ran all the way to the village to report the accident and summon help, which was to no avail.  The entire island was shocked and saddened by the loss of Jackie and Edward and many felt that some sort of memorial should be established, but no one could agree on what might be a fitting memorial for these young people.

Jackie, the daughter of James and Katherine Barstow, was also the godchild of Bess Wheldon Dunbar. Bess and her husband Bob (Ralph) had summered on the island since the turn of the [20th] century in the Wik-Wak, their converted fish house and summer cottage near the entrance to Dead Man’s Cove. She was particularly interested in establishing a fitting memorial to the two children, who had spent most, if not all, of their summers on the island. The memorial, she felt, should be something children of Jackie’s and Edward’s ages would enjoy. With this in mind, she asked Rita Davis (later White) – an islander and playmate of the Barstow and Vaughan children – what she would want most if she had her wish. Without hesitation, Rita answered brightly, “A mess of books.”  What better memorial could there be, thought Bess, than a Jackie and Edward library!

Twenty-one people were soon approached and asked to be sponsors of a letter which in November of 1926 (three months after the tragedy) was sent to many Monhegan summer visitors requesting a donation of books or money with which to establish a children’s library. No one anticipated the flood of books which soon flowed onto the island. The sponsors had hoped that possibly fifty books would be received. Instead, more than two hundred arrived by Christmas, along with many donations, and the problem soon became finding a home for this bonanza. Ernest Brackett, an island fisherman, offered the parlor of his home, which was situated on the main road not far from the Post Office, the dock and the “Dry and Fancy” located near the dock on the second floor of a fish house. This shop was run by his wife, Nellie and their son Lorimer, better known as Zimmie. Zimmie, then in his twenties, served informally as Librarian for as long as the books remained in the Brackett house.

Support for the venture was so great that the little library outgrew its quarters in short order. In 1928 Frank Pierce, another island fisherman and hotel owner, offered (for a modest sum) a small plot of land on the corner of the main road leading to Tribler Cottage, then known as the Island Inn Annex. At the second meeting of the sponsors, held on July 29, 1928, the names of three islanders were added to their roll*. A building committee was formed with Dr. William Lombard appointed as president and Frederic Dorr Steele, well known etcher, illustrator, and long-time summer resident of the island was asked to draw up plans for a library building. It is his depiction of Sherlock Holmes with double-peaked hat and brier pipe which has come to typify that renowned sleuth.

The new building was ready for occupancy by the summer of 1930. A wrought iron sign designed and made by Jack Marsh, son-in-law of Steele, was hung from the front gable. This sign showed two children and their books in silhouette and the words “Jackie and Edward Library.” At first the library held only children’s books, but after a few years, in answer to popular demand, adult books were added to the collection and once more the library outgrew its quarters.

Steele was set to work anew designing a children’s reading room to be added as an el to the east side of the original building.** This addition provided room for a reading table and chairs around which children could gather for story hours. Bookshelves lining the walls were placed low enough for children to reach the books they wanted.

In 1946 three albums of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia of Monhegan kept by Dr. and Mrs. John Cabot were donated to the library. Dr. Cabot, with his wife and family, had been summer residents of the island since 1899. These albums were so popular, particularly among summer residents and visitors, that they had to be removed from general access after only a few years because of deterioration of their pages. It was not until 1976 that a satisfactory means of preservation was decided upon and work began on the restoration of the albums. This work, undertaken by winter librarians and volunteers, was so exacting that it took three winters to complete. The three original albums expanded to nine over-sized volumes which once again became popular browsing material for visitors and islanders. As a final step toward preservation, duplicate research copies have been made for each album and the originals conserved.

From the start, the library has not turned to the plantation (municipality) for funds from tax money. Early funds were raised through costume balls held in the dining rooms of either the Island Inn or the Albee House (now known as the Monhegan House). Gymkhanas held on the ball field were participated in by islanders and summer visitors and recorded for posterity by the cameras of Zimmie Bracket and Max Rosenthal. Artist was teamed with fisherman, lawyer with carpenter, banker with shopkeeper in three-legged, teaspoon and other races. The great feeling of togetherness, so characteristic of Monhegan, has prevailed. In this tradition, we now celebrate our annual Tea-by-the-Sea fundraising event where many generous volunteers donate their time and artists donate their work to bring all together for a fun afternoon to benefit the library.

One of the most lucrative fundraising endeavors was Mug-Up Time on Monhegan. This compilation of island recipes from both islanders and summer residents was first published in 1956 and was reprinted many times over the years. Mug-Up Time was conceived by Grace Gummere, edited by Helen Jahn, and illustrated with line drawings by her daughter Elena. On the cover is a humorous sketch of a seagull, the work of Charlie Martin (the C.E.M. of New Yorker magazine fame). The recipe book was offered for sale at Zimmie Brackett’s Island Spa and proved to be very popular. In 2002, a sequel, Monhegan Island Cooks, was produced. The Cookbook Committee included Ann Bartels, Dyan Berk, Alice Boynton and Connie Miller. The cookbook was equally popular and was submitted to a national cookbook competition sponsored by Tabasco.  It placed third.

Money is also raised through fees charged for library membership, which is open to all residents, both summer and winter, as well as to renters and hotel guests. Single and family memberships are available and donations gratefully received, including bequests and memorial gifts. An annual letter is mailed each spring to all members.

The library has received many types of donations including: historical albums, art books, and reference materials. In 1984 the reading desk was laden with magazines and oversized books and the book shelves were overflowing. Need for more space had increased yearly and was by then critical. A bequest from the estate of Elizabeth Ebert, who passed away in 1977, made it possible for the addition of another wing to the building to enlarge the reading area and to provide needed bookshelf space and stack room. Elizabeth spent most of her seventy-five summers on the island in the studio/cottage built by her father, George Ebert on Harbor Road. Plans for the addition were drawn up by Cathy Payne and Peter Boehmer. Work began in July 1983 and was completed early in December of that year under the direction of Vernon Burton who was aided throughout the project by Peter Boehmer and Richard Farrell. It was Vernon, and his father, Oscar Burton, who planned and built the children’s reading room, erected in memory of Angelina Tribler Nunan, great aunt or Richard Farrell and native islander. Will Stanley, another island carpenter, built the original building.

Because the land area belonging to the library is small the original children’s room had to be removed. The new addition provided ample space for children on a balcony overlooking the spacious general reading room. With this addition the library is now three times its original size. The shelf space is again filled to capacity due to our generous members and Book Selection Committee members.

The library has always been a private institution. It is administered by a Board representing both summer and year-round residents. Officers are elected at the annual meeting held in August to which all members of the community are cordially invited. Board members serve for a limited time and necessary replacements are selected by a Nominating Committee each year. The Book Selection Committee selects new books and decides which books to cull for the bi-annual book sale.

For many years, the library was run solely by volunteers. Three perennial summer visitors: Ruth Leonard of the Simmons College School of Library Science, M Elizabeth Thompson and Elsie MacDonald, both of the Children’s Department of the Library of Congress, donated much time and gave valuable advice concerning book selection, cataloging and other details while here on their summer vacations.

The library has continued to expand. In addition to the book collection of over 8000 volumes there is now a substantial archival collection, including many rare Monhegan Books. There are also computers with high-speed internet access as well as access—through Maine State University—to online and interactive courses. The library now employs two librarians, one year round, and another during the summer months.

In recent years, the library has served as a venue for community events, especially poetry readings and book signings, and as a place for island organizations, such Monhegan Associates, to hold meetings.  During the summers, Corlis Carroll has lead a story hour for children on the library lawn each week, and a book discussion organized by volunteers from the community and the library board is held roughly once a month.

When the library was incorporated in 1938 mandatory regulations of incorporation forced the name to be changed to the Monhegan Library. This caused great distress among those who had worked so hard to establish this memorial for Jackie and Edward, since it also required the removal of their names from the wrought-iron sign which had graced the front gable of the library since it was first opened. In 1956 however, the name was again changed to the Monhegan Memorial Library. Although the sign still reads Monhegan Library, the book plate designed by Frederic Dorr Steele and affixed to every volume shows five children gathered around a reading table under the notation “Jackie and Edward’s Library.”

The library has served the people of Monhegan well for the over eighty years of its existence, due to the efforts of many people. All have high hopes that it will do so equally well for many years to come.

Alta Ashly

January 1984


* For the sake of brevity, names of all those, with but a few exceptions, who have contributed in several ways to the life of  the library—sponsors, officers, librarians, consultants, donors, et al—have been omitted from the body of this report but can be found in its appendix.

** Built in memory of Angelina Tribler Nunan in 1948.

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