Islesford Historical Society members and HistoryIT staff examine a map in the collection. PHOTO COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF ISLAND HISTORY

Getting in touch with history: Project seeks to make collections more accessible

BAR HARBOR — Friends of Island History (FOIH) is working to survey the condition and scope of local historical collections and determine how they can be protected, cataloged, digitized and made more accessible to the public in a shared “history trust.”

Staff members and volunteers from 15 local organizations with historical collections gathered at Machias Savings Bank in Bar Harbor in August, where they received assessment reports about their collections from Portland digital history company HistoryIT.

HistoryIT completed in-depth evaluations of area historical collections in May and June.

This first step is the culmination of years of effort to identify and bring together the rich history that tells the stories of our islands’ communities, said Bill Horner, founder of Friends of Island History.

“Together,” he said, “we can share our resources, work together and tell more complete stories than we can separately.”

HistoryIT staff members completed on-site evaluations of the condition, scope and environmental conditions of historical collections on Mount Desert Island, Great Cranberry Island, Little Cranberry Island and Swans Island. The assessments revealed that the 15 participating organizations, which include seven historical societies, three libraries, three museums and two community nonprofits, contain at least 50,000 photographs, slides and negatives, 1,450 linear feet of bound and unbound archival materials, 1,750 scrapbooks and albums, 2,300 audio/visual items and 14,000 oversized items such as maps and architectural drawings.

“While there is overlap in the subject matter of the historical materials at different organizations due to their shared history and geographic proximity,” said History IT CEO Kristen Gwinn-Becker, “all the collections contain unique materials that can be used to tell distinctive stories.”

“The organizations have amassed collections of significant historical and cultural value, but many materials are at risk from insufficient space and lack of environmental monitoring and control. The need for more space and appropriate archival housing to protect fragile items is a concern for virtually all participating organizations.”

Project Director Tova Mellen said that an additional concern is the lack of public accessibility to the area’s collections, as at least 80 percent of the materials are not available to view online. “Many organizations have little or no form of electronic cataloging,” said Mellen, “which leads to a loss of research capabilities and engagement by the public, and limits organizational control over their materials.”

During the assessments, HistoryIT gathered over 2,000 items to include in a shared digital catalog prototype. This digital collections site will demonstrate how searching across collections can create enhanced research opportunities and provide a means to digitally preserve and display significant historical materials.

The organizations will meet twice more in 2017 to review the digital catalog prototype and to discuss potential structures for the history trust’s governance and shared collections spaces.

The following organizations are currently participating in the initiative: the Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor Historical Society, Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association, College of the Atlantic, Great Cranberry Island Historical Society, Great Harbor Maritime Museum, Islesford Historical Society, Jesup Memorial Library, Maine Seacoast Mission, Mount Desert Island Historical Society, Northeast Harbor Library, Seal Cove Auto Museum, Southwest Harbor Historical Society, Swan’s Island Educational Society and Tremont Historical Society.

A gift from the Charles Butt Foundation is making the partnership and planning effort possible.