Venerable Harpswell librarian: ‘I simply know books’

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HARPSWELL — In the last three decades, the 106-year old Orr’s Island Library has changed dramatically, transformed from a one-room library with a lean-to in the back to store books, to a beautifully restored multi-room building.

But one thing has remained constant: librarian Joanne Rogers.

Friday, Aug. 19, the library will host a celebration of Rogers’ 30th anniversary as librarian from 4-6 p.m.

During her tenure, Rogers has not only overseen the library’s physical modifications, but also the advent and implementation of computers, and an expansive catalogue of volunteer and public programs.

But most significantly, as the library’s only full-time staff member, the decades have solidified her place as an institution in Harpswell. For those who call Harpswell home, Rogers is the familiar arbiter of one of Orr’s Island’s most cherished gathering places.

In that sense, Rogers’ is not a typical library.”Oh, we’re not quiet here, not at all,” Rogers said, as she sat at her desk Monday.

Over a span of 40 minutes, residents trickled into the library to peruse its shelves and hardly a single person entered without receiving a greeting from Rogers, who knew nearly all by their first name.

Although she has 30 years worth of memories, one of Rogers’ favorite anecdotes occurred recently when a small boy visited the library.

“This library is old,” he said, his head barely clearing the top of her desk.

“Why,” Rogers asked.

“You write stuff.”

Less old, and more old school. Unlike larger libraries, the Orr’s Island Library isn’t digitized. Instead, Rogers records the books that come and go on a small note card that she files in a wooden box on her desk.

Consequently, Rogers’ intimate knowledge of the library and its patrons serves both a social and an operational function. After decades of sitting at the front desk, her mind is not only a Rolodex of her readers’ tastes and preferences – she won’t hesitate to recommend a book at check-out, especially if she thinks a patron won’t like the one they’ve chosen – it is also the library’s central computer.

Every day, Rogers checks to see what books are due for return. If someone fails to get the book back on time, she doesn’t send them an impersonal email.

“I call them,” Rogers said, and tells them over the phone, “‘You really need to return that, I know somebody else that wants it.'”

In her opinion, this kind of personal experience is the most effective way to run a library. “It’s the personal touch that does it,” she said.

Before Rogers was librarian, she was a bookseller. She operated Jo’s Books on Bailey Island; the idea originated from a comment that she made to her late husband that he ought to build her a bookstore to contain all her books.

When her predecessor left in 1986, a representative from the library knocked on Rogers’ door one afternoon and asked if she was interested in filling the vacancy. She said yes on the spot.

Rogers said she had no official library experience. “I simply know books,” she said modestly.

Rogers said she plans to continue as librarian for the foreseeable future, at least until “I can’t do everything the job entails,” she said. “When I can’t remember what you want to read, I’ll do something else.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Joanne Rogers has been the Orr’s Island librarian for 30 years. The library will host a gathering in her honor from 4-6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 19.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.