CHERRYFIELD — If not for a donation of 125 books by Maine authors this spring, the Cherryfield Free Public Library would not have added a new book to its collection in two years.

If not for volunteers, the library in Liberty would not be open six days a week.

If not for supporters lobbying friends and neighbors for votes at the town meeting, the library in Mexico might be closed by now.

But free books, volunteers and fundraisers, which have kept many rural libraries in Maine from going out of business, were not enough to save the century-old North Bridgton Public Library. This summer, the library board voted to cease operations effective Dec. 31 because it cannot afford to stay open. It joins libraries in Buxton, North Monmouth and Otis that have closed in recent years.

“It’s very sad,” said Susan Cole, treasurer of the North Bridgton Public Library. “Our library is done.”

Across Maine, rural libraries are barely getting by. Taxpayers are unwilling or unable to pay the bills, and the state’s smallest libraries are struggling to find their niche among changing technologies and lifestyles, which provide instant access to information and drive patrons to larger libraries that offer more services and conveniences.

While the Portland Public Library adapts its technologies to stream material, 29 percent of Maine libraries are not automated. As Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth finishes a $2.5 million renovation, libraries in Cherryfield and Mexico are hosting lobster dinners to close budget deficits and strategy sessions to rally support for town funding.

Without these libraries, folks in rural Maine would lack reliable Internet, Web conferencing and a place to make copies and print documents. Perhaps most important, they would lose a noncommercial, nonreligious space open to anybody.

And, of course, they’d be without library books – printed books, audiobooks and electronic books, as well as CDs, movies and other forms of circulating media.

FUNDRAISING TO STAY OPEN

The issue has reached the critical stage in many communities.

“We are literally fundraising for every day that we are open,” said Cherryfield library co-director Cara Sawyer, who raises the money the library spends on wages for her and one assistant with benefit dinners and art auctions. “If we continue to go the way we are, we will be closed in two years.”

Each year, Mexico Free Public Library Director Valerie Messana submits a budget proposal for town meeting that includes money for her salary and one part-time assistant, plus routine expenses, including new books, in hopes of winning the support of residents. This year, her proposed budget of $68,000 passed.

Next year, she is not so sure.

Her budget faces annual opposition from residents who believe the $22.24 per capita the library spends each year is too much.

“I’ve been here 13 years, and it’s becoming harder and harder each year to get our funding without a big fight,” Messana said. “There’s a group of citizens who would really like to close the library. They do not feel the library is needed, and they do not want their taxes to go up.”

Nissa Flanagan, president of the Maine Library Association and technical services librarian at the Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth, said the issues facing libraries in Cherryfield and Mexico are common, and stem almost entirely from a desire to reduce costs and manage tax levies.

Residents and elected officials are being asked to decide what services are essential – fixing roads or buying books – and libraries are having a harder time convincing the public their role in a community is essential to small-town life.

“Libraries are constantly trying to help people realize why funding for the public good is important,” Flanagan said. “We have to constantly remind people why it’s important to have something like a library in a community, and that is tied into the perceptions of who librarians are and what librarians do.”

To adapt to changing times, libraries are offering more services and programs for adults and children, including plant sales, genealogy programs, summer book clubs and craft projects for kids, reliable high-speed Internet and readings by published authors. Those programs require time and expertise, and as budgets are slashed it becomes harder for libraries to supplement traditional services that involve circulating books and CDs and offering a quiet place for reading and research.

PROBLEMS WITH STAFFING, RESOURCES

The conflict creates a Catch-22: Just as libraries try to find new ways to serve constituents, they have to reduce staff and hours and charge more for basic services like interlibrary loans.

“There are different problems that different communities face, but they all go back to staffing and resources,” Flanagan said.

The Cherryfield Free Public Library in Washington County illustrates the point.

In Cherryfield, Sawyer and co-librarian Kathy Upton are paid to work a combined 42 to 47 hours per week. Between them, their annual pay is $14,600 per year. From September to June, they are open 20 hours a week.

The library’s annual budget is about $30,000, and Sawyer projects a deficit of about $5,000 this year, which she expects to cover with fundraisers and gifts. In early September, the library hosted a lobster dinner that raised $800.

This spring, it canceled a boat cruise because it didn’t sell enough tickets. The seven people who purchased tickets donated their money. In the upcoming fiscal year, the library will host a quilt raffle, pie sale, Mother’s Day dinner, book sale and cemetery tour in addition to sending letters asking for donations.

The Cherryfield library, which dates to 1837, hasn’t bought a book, movie or any piece of circulating material in more than two years because there is no money in the budget.

This spring, however, the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance gave the library 125 books by Maine authors. The alliance acquires books for judging annual awards and distributes those books each year to a library in need. This year, it chose Cherryfield, said executive director Joshua Bodwell, because the library does good work with limited resources.

He hoped the books would provide moral support and reward for a job well done.

Sawyer said it’s important for a library to keep material fresh, so patrons have new things to read. But even if it had money to buy books, Cherryfield would buy the latest popular crime fiction or national best-sellers.

If you’re a Maine writer and your name is not Stephen King or Tess Gerritsen, chances are Cherryfield can’t justify buying your book. The MWPA gift made it possible for local residents to keep up with Maine fiction, children’s books, mysteries and other genres.

“It is beyond important to us to have received this, not just because they are new books, but because they are Maine titles,” Sawyer said.

A LINK TO THE INTERNET

In some respects, Cherryfield’s remote location Down East has helped enhance the library’s role in the community. Through the Maine School Library Network, it installed fiber-optic cable three years ago, giving the library the most reliable public Internet in the area.

Its four desktop and six laptop computers, which were purchased with a grant, are coveted by local residents, who use the library for email, to pay bills and to read newspaper websites. When the library is closed, people park in the lot to access the wireless signal on their phones or portable computers. The library has become a popular stop for truckers traveling on Route 1.

When fiber optic was installed, Sawyer got calls at home at night from residents who wondered why so many people were parking in the library lot after hours. To Sawyer, those phone calls affirmed the essential nature of the library’s service and what would be lost if the library closed.

“The books are important, but right now the Internet connection is the most important thing for our library,” she said.

But the Internet doesn’t generate revenue. While the library has begun charging for interlibrary loans and other services, it has maintained its Internet service for free.

SUCCEEDING BECAUSE OF VOLUNTEERS

In Liberty and Montville, taxpayers fund library director Barbara Worcester for two hours a week, or approximately $1,400 a year. The Ivan O. Davis-Liberty Library has an annual budget of about $14,000, less than half of which comes from the towns. The library raises the rest.

The Liberty library stands as an example of a small library that succeeds because of its volunteers. A core of eight and a total of 15 volunteers keep the library open six days a week, for 25.5 hours. Most weekdays, it’s open for a few hours in the morning and a couple of hours after school or early evening.

“They like the library and they want it to work,” said Barbara Rehmeyer, president of the Liberty Library Association and a retired school librarian. “Our volunteers realize it’s a community center.”

Even with a group of dedicated volunteers, the library’s existence is precarious. A leaky roof and faulty furnace present unexpected costs that the necessities-only budget cannot absorb, Rehmeyer said.

While volunteers make the Liberty library function and help it survive, the library still needs grants, town funding and fundraisers to thrive.

In North Bridgton, time is running out on the library, which is open 11 hours a week with one part-time paid librarian. The North Bridgton Public Library will close for many reasons, said Cole, the treasurer. Money is the root of it.

“Our funding is going down and our expenses are going up,” she said.

Across the state, few municipalities spend less tax money per capita on libraries than the village of North Bridgton, at $1.70. The annual budget is $17,000, of which $9,000 comes from the town.

The library has about 50 loyal patrons, who likely will begin using larger libraries in Bridgton or nearby North Conway, New Hampshire, when the North Bridgton library closes Dec. 31.

Among them is Margaret Macdonald, who said the closing is “quite a blow to the community.”

“It’s always been a socialization place,” she said. “If you need a book and they don’t have it, they can get it for you.”

Macdonald has been using the library for 15 years and counts among her friends longtime librarian Heather Silvia. By the time Macdonald heard rumors of the library’s closing, it was too late. She asked Silvia and learned the decision had been made.

The North Bridgton library feels like a library should: Clean and quaint, an old white building with black shutters, an American flag out front and a sign announcing “Public Library” over the door. There’s a nice yard out back.

It’s warm inside, with big wooden bookshelves that are mostly packed with books that look and smell old, squeaky swivel chairs and a handsome clock that hangs on a wall. The distinguishing feature is the card catalog, with its small, sturdy drawers and brass pulls. Rows and rows of cards are worn by thumb grease and dust.

North Bridgton isn’t unique. Nearly a third of all Maine libraries are not automated, because they can’t afford it. People find the card catalog charming.

But charm alone was not enough to keep the library open.

This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. Sept. 29, to correct the title of Nissa Flanagan.