Monday, January 24, 2011

Juliana L’Heureux: 'Zoom In' puts Maine history at your fingertips

School children from North School Portland line up in Miss Cobb's class
to be weighed in 1932
- Courtesy Maine Historical Society

January 19 - The Portland Press Herald - Juliana L’Heureux

The Maine Historical Society’s library in Portland is undergoing a state-of-the-art expansion.

It’s a physical and digital expansion.
 Nicholas Noyes is head of library services at the historical society, a position he has held for 22 years.

Noyes was delighted to provide a tour of the library’s modern facilities which are home to many rare source documents, more than 150,000 photographs, old maps and genealogical information about Maine and northern New England.

Of course, information about Maine’s Franco-Americans and Indian populations is among the historic archives. “I love my work with the historical society,” says Noyes.

In addition to archival information dating back hundreds of years, the library also maintains a website called Maine History Online, drawing on digital images from the Maine Memory Network. 

A special program called “Zoom In” launched Maine History Online. “Zoom In” provides access to physical and digital material from 40 historical organizations in Maine, organized by the society. “Zoom In” is on exhibit online until May 29.

Originally, the brick building located behind the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow home on Congress Street was opened in 1907 as the Maine Historical Society’s library. In 2007, a badly needed upgrade of the original library was launched. During renovations, the library was relocated. In March 2009, the expanded library reopened to the public in its original location. 

Among the modern facilities included in the expansion are computers with Internet access for history researchers and access to climate-controlled storage space where hundreds of thousands of source documents are individually indexed and stored. Most of the library’s vast archives are cataloged in fireproof library shelves. 

Noyes pointed out several framed antique maps. An English-commissioned map, dated 1817, hangs in the climate control storage room. It was used by the English during the border disputes between Maine and Canada, showing the St. Croix River as a boundary line.

“Even with this map, neither the Americans nor the British agreed on which river the St. Croix really was,” explained Noyes. Of course, the Americans commissioned a map of their own, but Maine became a state in 1820, without an official northern boundary. This dispute was finally settled in 1842 with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

The border dispute notwithstanding, northern Maine remains a tightly knit community, especially in the St. John Valley. Despite the international boundary, many families on both sides of the border continue to speak French as their primary language.

Photographs in the library are cataloged by where they originated. There’s a catalog box for almost every Maine town and city. Among the thousands of pictures is one taken of the portrait of the Indian lady Sarah Molasses. She was the daughter of Molly Molasses, known as a medicine woman and healer of the Wabanaki Indians. The original Molasses portrait was painted in 1830. Catalog information describes the original Molasses portrait as being with the Tarratine Club artifacts, a club near Bangor founded by former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin (incorporated in 1900). 

Online researchers can access the library’s vast digital collection by computer.

“Zoom In” is an easy-to-access digital exhibit, in which each entry reads like a storybook accompanied by labeled photographs. 

In the Franco-American collection is an online educational story with photographs about Lewiston’s Les Raquetteurs, a snow shoe club named “Le Montagnard,” founded in 1924, by French Canadian immigrant Louis Gagne.

Noyes says historic documents specific to Maine are welcome by the historical society’s library. Old photographs are best archived when the pictures are identified by place, including, when possible, the names of the people in the pictures.

Information about the Maine Historical Society and Maine History online is available at the website

Juliana L'Heureux

One Turkey Run
Topsham, Maine 04086