MAINE, Maine — There is an easy way – right at your fingertips – to pursue Maine history and genealogy. With one click of a mouse on your computer, you can access letters, journals, architectural drawings, images of clothing and tools – even Portland city tax records from the 1920s.
The Maine Historical Society is the third oldest historical society in the United States. To access much of its collection, you don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home.
"The Maine Memory Network is a digital history platform. It’s a consortium that’s hosted and operated by Maine Historical Society, but it includes close to 300 contributing partners," MHS Deputy Director Jamie Rice said.
Most of the contributing partners, such as the Maine State Library and the Maine State Archives, are in-state because the content is Maine-driven. For example, some partners are outside the state, like The National Archives and the Boston Public Library. All of the contributed content has to be about the history of Maine.
"We’ve been collecting with a family history focus, genealogy focus, since about the 1920s when it really became sort of a popular pastime, and have expanded those resources. And we continue to collect. It’s certainly growing. The more online resources are available – you can get further and deeper into genealogy than you ever really could before online," Rice said.
The collection has been built over the last 20 years.
"We also have themed exhibits and a section of collective Maine history called ‘Maine history online’ that helps contextualize Maine history, which can be a great source for genealogists if they want to understand what was going on in the state at the time that their ancestors lived here," Rice continued.
Maine Memory Network has now gotten national recognition by being named to Family Tree Magazine’s Best State Websites for Genealogy for 2021.
"There are a lot of people who don’t live in Maine who really connect with this place who might have had ancestors who lived here or spent time here, or their ancestors spent time here. So promoting our site nationally helps draw people who may be outside of the state to Maine Historical Society and our contributing partners and help kind of put Maine history front and center," Rice said.
Navigating the website is a bit like opening the door to an enormous museum and being allowed to wander about – visiting one exhibit after another.
"It really helped put a focus on digital history and the importance of digital history and making things accessible online. Certainly, we are committed to the physical and to our collections that are here as are the repository or the individuals who host their content online," Rice said. "And it will never replace seeing things in person. But it really gives people an opportunity to experience things that they might not otherwise have been able to, especially during a global pandemic."
While the MHS can share its collections, individuals can also contribute from their personal collections by uploading photos or other items, and MHS provides free training to do so. Contributors can also add written audio and video stories through the “My Maine Stories” platform. The website houses close to 50,000 items and gets visitors every day.
There is plenty to explore once you begin looking around the website. Rice highlights one area that gets a lot of traffic.
"One of the most popular components is the 1924 tax records for the city of Portland that can give you a glimpse of every taxable building in Portland in 1924, which is a fun activity if people have had ancestors who lived here at that time," she said.
A favorite part of the website is "The Mystery Corner," where photos are posted and folks can help identify people or locations in the images.
"We have photographs from the Dave Astor show, so we put some online and asked people to help identify who was on the show. We got a lot of really great feedback," Rice said.
The database is massive. Maine Historical Society will be launching new initiatives through the network in the coming months, exploring architecture and landscape in Maine and a project exploring colonial land records. Maine Memory Network is a free and open database – you don’t need to be a member of the Maine Historical Society. Go to MaineMemory.net to explore all of the different components.