October 2006: Maine Memory Network
In the late 1990s a consortium of seven cultural organizations in Maine conducted a statewide assessment of cultural resources and needs. The consortium identified a need to improve access to resources so that Mainers could become more aware of their heritage. The assessment found that, as a rural and geographically large state, it is difficult for residents to make use of local historical collections.
The Maine Memory Network, a digital museum launched in 2001, grew out of the Maine Historical Society’s desire to improve public access to its vast historical collections. The Maine Historical Society has one of the largest and most important collections of historical material in the state, including maps, photographs, letters, journals, diaries, official records, manuscripts, and much more.
While developing the Web site, it became apparent to Maine Historical Society staff that Maine Memory could serve an even greater function; it could become a centralized online gateway to Maine history and could enable historical societies (there are more than 225), museums, archives, public libraries, and other collections-based organizations across the state to share their collections online. The Maine Historical Society made use of an IMLS Learning Opportunity Grant to provide cultural organizations with the software, training, and support they need to add images and items from their own collections to the Maine Memory Network. Local organizations who are contributing partners have significant autonomy and decide what materials and stories from their communities to share.
Project Design and Goals
From the inception of the Maine Memory Network, Maine Historical Society staff grappled with the question of how to provide context for the individual historical items in its ever-growing database. With IMLS funding the Historical Society made a plan to create interpretive content for Maine Memory that would enable teachers, students, and the general public to explore and understand historical items in greater depth. In essence, the goal of the 2002 National Leadership Grant was to transform Maine Memory’s digital archive into a full-fledged, statewide online museum.
Beyond that, the Maine Historical Society wanted to facilitate the use of primary documents and Maine Memory Network in Maine classrooms and enable Maine students to learn about local, state, and national history through the eyes and experiences of their own communities.
Fortunately, Maine has one of the best-developed educational technology networks in the country, ensuring that students and the general public would have access to these online resources. The Public Utilities Commission provides free, high-speed Internet to public schools and libraries, and the internationally recognized Maine Learning Technology Initiative distributes laptop computers to every seventh- and eighth- grade student in the state and provides ongoing training and support to their teachers.
Plan in Action
The Maine Historical Society tackled its plan for developing interpretive online resources with a two-pronged approach. First, it developed an infrastructure and system that allow Maine Historical Society staff, contributing partners, and even students to create and share online exhibits. These online exhibits—of which approximately 70 have been created to date— explore a diverse array of topics and events in Maine history. They are based on rigorous research, and are either reviewed or created by a project historian.
The second prong was to develop curricular resources that would help teachers teach and students learn Maine history through primary resources. One of the key items developed is a resource called Finding Katahdin Online. It is based on and accompanies a recently published Maine Studies textbook created by the University of Maine Press. Maine Memory now provides online access to hundreds of primary sources keyed to each chapter and section of the book. It also provides free online access to a major 500-page resource guide that was developed by UM Press to complement the book. Finding Katahdin Online includes more than 60 fully developed lesson plans tied to State Learning Results in an easily downloadable and free PDF format.
The project also provides innovative training support for teachers, students, and community members to help them research, prepare, scan, and upload historic materials from their own communities. In the process, they learn about preserving and sharing the history of their individual communities. Participants determine specific resources that connect with their interests, while Maine Memory Network staff provides technical assistance, teaching materials, and historical society resources. The program is promoted directly to students in the classroom and through teacher professional development programs, as well as through library conferences, educator conferences, word-of-mouth, and press coverage.
Since its launch in 2001, the Maine Memory Network has been a great success: 160 organizations have contributed more than 11,000 historical items from their collections, and many educational opportunities have emerged.
The Maine Memory Network is becoming, in part, a community-centered program that includes a strong emphasis on involving elementary, middle, and high school-age youth in the study of their communities and helping to share that history on line. Initial evaluations indicate that participating youth developed a deep interest in their community’s history and became involved with the preservation of that history and how it informs present-day decisions for city planning and development. Participation also reinforced key academic goals and helped students develop a variety of important skills.
Working with Maine Historical Society staff, Laura Richter, a Technology Integration Specialist and former Social Studies teacher for the Skowhegan Area Middle School, collaborated with four other teachers to create a local history course that guides youth to explore community history and use online resources and media to share their research through online exhibitions and narrative interpretation. The popular course, which meets once a week, features guest speakers and involves hands-on research with primary source materials at local institutions.
When one student learned of the city’s plan to demolish an historic building that was depicted in materials at the Skowhegan History House, he decided to become involved. He set about writing letters to the editor and short pieces for the newspaper about the history of the building and what the building meant to the community. He and other students became outspoken advocates for the preservation of city history and began attending and presenting at heritage council meetings and eventually created the Skowhegan Junior Historical Society.
The strong ties the students made with community members formed the core of a relationship that continues. When the Skowhegan Heritage Council began plans for a walking tour of the Flat Iron District, council members turned to the students to select and research 25 places of interest to include on the tour. Over two years, about 18 students participated on this project that utilized both online and human resources available through the Maine Memory Network. This year students are working on the production of a city documentary for which they have already conducted in-depth research.
The Maine Historical Society hopes to develop a program and resources that make it possible for partnerships in communities around the state to undertake such collaborative projects and share their work through the Maine Memory Network.