At the beginning of the 20th century, some 300 islands off the coast of Maine had communities occupying them year-round. Today, just over a century later, there are only 15. If you’ve been even a casual reader of Working Waterfront and other Island Institute publications over the years, you’ve heard this before.

This fact – that about five percent of island communities survive from a century ago – helps explain our mission in two ways. First, it’s an indication that islanders have been up against it for a while, struggling to deal with an off-island world that, in the majority of cases, simply wasn’t designed to accommodate them. Because so many services and resources for basic needs like education, industry and health care have been accessible to island communities somewhere on a scale ranging from difficult to impossible, islanders have traditionally gone without some things, made trade-offs for others and fought for what they really needed. For many of them the obstacles at some point became insurmountable and they were forced to give in. Eventually, communities disappeared.

It’s by no fluke that today’s 15 island communities have remained vital and continued to contribute to Maine’s economy and character over the years. It’s because they have continually met the challenges facing them with creativity and innovation, with passion and commitment. The very characteristics which look like weaknesses to some – namely smallness and isolation – have again and again provided the strength that has sustained island communities. Globalization and sprawl are forcing us to think carefully about how we value rural communities in general, and what we can do to sustain them. Much can be learned from Maine’s island communities – which, after all, have been dealing with similar problems, asking the same questions, for some time now.

This column is devoted to discussion of the Island Institute’s work and issues and ideas related to it. Our work varies a great deal in its details. We host forums on important issues such as affordable housing, education and fisheries management, and disseminate the results. We help communities integrate new technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in ways that are appropriate for their specific needs. We help provide island teachers with the professional development opportunities and education resources they ask for. We place Island Fellows in communities to work with local institutions on a variety of capacity-building projects. In coming columns, we’ll discuss these and other projects, and introduce you to some of the talented and dedicated staff that helps make this work happen.

We hope you’ll see that while much about the work changes from year to year as the issues that need to be addressed change, the principles behind it remain the same. When it comes down to it, the Island Institute does two things. We work with our community partners to try to make sure that Maine’s island and remote coastal communities will always be places where people can live and work. And we share their successes, creative solutions and innovations with a world that can learn a lot from them.

Nathan Michaud is Programs Manager at the Island Institute.