This Small Library Off the Coast of Maine Is Collecting Banned Books

With challenges to books in the United States at a high, the Matinicus Island Library is a remote haven for controversial literature

three small stacks of various books sitting on top of brown desk
A small library on Maine's Matinicus Island is actively collecting banned books in a challenge against recent political efforts to remove controversial literature off the shelves of libraries and school curriculums. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

A shed-turned-library in Maine’s most remote and isolated community is preaching tolerance by filling its shelves with the nation’s most controversial books, reports Abigail Curtis for Bangor Daily News.

Located 22 miles off the coast of Maine, Matinicus Island is home to about 100 residents, according to the Associated Press (AP). In such a small community, a “live and let live” philosophy is central to the residents, library volunteer Eva Murray tells Bangor Daily News. It’s what makes Matinicus Island Library the perfect home for the country’s most challenged literature.

Literary classics like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath can be found on the library’s shelves, as well as modern reads like Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three. The library also hopes to obtain copies of Maus by Art Spiegelman.

a small stack of books on a white shelf, topped by a copy of Tango Makes Three
A display of banned books at the Matinicus Island Library includes And Tango Makes Three, one of the most banned books in the United States.  Matinicus Island Library

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom records attempts to remove books from libraries, schools and universities. According to the association, To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned on the grounds of racial and adult themes. The Grapes of Wrath has been banned for its use of profanity and “inappropriate sexual references.” Meanwhile, And Tango Makes Three, based on a true story about two male penguins who raised a chick together at the Central Park Zoo, is one of the most challenged books in the country for its portrayal of a same-sex couple. Murray picked up a copy of the picture book on recent trip to the mainland, according to AP.

“We are buying banned books in order to publicly push back against the impetus to ban books. To say, ‘If you don’t want it in your library, we want it in ours,’” Murray tells Bangor Daily News.

On such a secluded island, access to books has been no easy feat for residents. Before the library existed, residents would share and trade books, get books shipped to them using Maine State Library’s Books by Mail program or scour through the island’s trash and recycling center for books discarded by their neighbors, per Bangor Daily News. Over 40 years ago, local teens even created their own short-lived lending program.

Despite these efforts, islanders ultimately decided they needed a more formal library.

The Matinicus Island Library was founded in 2016, after Murray and a group of locals renovated an eight-by-ten foot shed a resident donated after no longer needing it, reports Bangor Daily News. The library received nonprofit status, and now the shelves are filled with field guides and donated books in good condition.

With grant funding from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, a private non-profit in Maine focused on supporting community-based initiatives, the library added an adjoining shed in 2020. There,  the children’s room opened last summer, much to the delight of kids and their parents, reports Bangor Daily News.

Matinicus Island Library has no librarian and is solely run by volunteers who work at their convenience, Murray tells the news site. Books are checked out using the honor system, and visitors write down the titles they borrow in a notebook. Even island tourists who accidentally take books home have been known to ship back their novels, unprompted by the library, per Bangor Daily News.

The library stands out in a nation becoming increasingly vocal and polarized when it comes to whether or not certain books should be outlawed. The American Library Association said it received an “unprecedented” 330 reports of book challenges last fall, amounting to more than double the total number of challenges from 2020, Elizabeth Harris and Alexandra Alter reported for the New York Times in February. Books are being attacked “at a pace not seen in decades,” they added.

Once subjects of school board meetings, the challenges to some books have risen to the level of law enforcement, statehouses and political campaigns, according to the New York Times. The targets of such censorship are typically books about race, gender and sexuality, the Times reports. Many of the challenges stem from “moral hysteria about the protection of children,” Claire Armistead writes for The Guardian.

“The politicalization of the topic is what's different than what I’ve seen in the past,” Britten Follett, chief executive of content at Follett School Solutions, one of the country’s largest academic book suppliers, tells the New York Times. “It’s being driven by legislation, it’s being driven by politicians aligning with one side or the other. And in the end, the librarian, teacher or educator is getting caught in the middle.”

Despite this trend, a mission to collect banned books is not controversial on Matinicus Island, per Bangor Daily News.

“We are in a privileged position to say, ‘We don’t ban books,’ and that we welcome people’s suggestions for books,” Murray says. “That’s the thing about starting a library [out here]. You can do good without having to ask for a lot of permissions first.”

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