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Maine Memory Network — 21st Century Skills

October 21, 2011 ET

By Steve Bromage
Assistant Director, Maine Historical Society

The Maine Historical Society has supported multiple projects through IMLS National Leadership and Museums for America grants including a statewide "Community History Outreach Program," campaign to build public access to historical collections held by organizations throughout Maine. 

The 21st Century Skills framework has been a useful tool for describing and understanding our work here in Maine. I suspect that Maine Historical Society is like other organizations: we haven’t created new programs to fit the concept but we have embraced it as a model that effectively articulates and provides context for activities that are essential to our institution’s mission and program.

By way of background, Maine Memory Network was launched in 2001 as an online digital archive whose primary goal was to expand access to historical collections across the state. It has since evolved into a robust online museum and become a flexible platform for a wide range of historical interests and activity. Maine Memory is relatively unique in the way it empowers historical societies, museums, libraries, and other institutions to share their collections and stories: MHS provides training, support, and the technological infrastructure; our “contributing partners” choose what material to share and then all work—digitizing, cataloging, uploading, interpreting—can be done locally. The model expands access to our contributors’ collections, values their local knowledge, and empowers participation. These dynamics have laid the groundwork for extensive collaboration at both state and local levels.

Early on we could see that Maine Memory provided intriguing opportunities for local partnership: historical societies needed help digitizing collections, schools wanted access to local primary documents, and libraries were interested in helping and seeing their communities represented online.

The training and support that MHS has developed is designed to help contributors find those resources within their communities, and to develop the relationships, skills, and capacity needed to contribute to Maine Memory. The Share Your Local History section of Maine Memory provides extensive examples of community work, supporting resources, and a great blog that explores how this all works on the ground.

Bangor Museum and Center for History curator Dana Lippitt with students in Ron Bilancia's Maine Studies class at Cohen School.

The process of doing local history collaboratively—when done well and with purpose—is well-suited to the development of skills and capacity within communities. Local history has many advantages as a focus for community mobilization: it is filled with topics, people, and stories that are familiar, accessible, entertaining, locally meaningful, and ripe for exploring. A collaborative approach provides an opportunity to bring a variety of new stakeholders and perspectives into the process, and for local partners to exchange skills, resources, and knowledge that strengthens them individually and collectively.

Because so many people can participate—librarians, students, town officials, community volunteers as well as people affiliated with historical organizations—there is an opportunity to reinvigorate the practice of local history and demonstrate its relevance to the broader community.

At a basic level, training people to select, catalog, and digitize material provides a chance to introduce or reinforce a wide range of fundamental historical skills—i.e. literacy and critical thinking skills. What is a primary document? What questions should I ask of it? How do I learn more about it? Who can help me? What might it tell me about my community’s relationship to the broader world? More broadly, collaboration encourages partners to clarify their own institutional interests and needs, and to identify the skills and resources that each has to share. Successful collaboration requires project planning, civic engagement, communication, flexibility, sharing, and creativity as well as historical understanding and the ability to use technology.

While we have been fortunate to have Maine Memory as a platform to work from, I believe that the basic principles of collaboration suggested by the IMLS report on Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills can provide opportunities for libraries and museums anywhere. The first step is to reach out to and begin talking to your neighbors.

What type of 21st Century Skills initiatives are happening in your organization?

About the Author
Steve Bromage is Assistant Director of the Maine Historical Society where he has worked since 2001.  In that role, he helps lead institutional planning, oversees public, educational, and online programming, and works closely with partners throughout Maine’s cultural community. Steve has helped guide the development of the Maine Memory Network), a statewide digital museum that has received national recognition for its innovative approach to providing access to historical resources and engaging communities in local, state, and national history. Previously, Steve was Associate Director of the online Disability History Museum and helped produce the award-winning NPR documentary Beyond Affliction: The Disability History Project.

Editor’s Note:  This post is part of a series responding to the IMLS report on Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills.  Related posts in the series:
Lincoln Park Zoo – Building 21st Century Skills through Environmental Literacy
ECHO Lake - It’s Not About Me, It’s All About You
21st Century Skills in Oklahoma

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