2016-12-02 / Front Page

City history online

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The internet is a lot of things to a lot of people, but for those interested in all things South Portland, it’s now something new – a time machine.

The South Portland Historical Society recently launched a new online museum that includes more than 7,000 images available for public review – photos that include everything from historic photographs of South Portland homes and city residents, to curiosities like the quartermaster records for Fort Preble, the one-time military outpost that is now the campus of Southern Maine Community College.

“In this digital age, being able to provide online access to history is a huge achievement for any historical society,” said Kathryn DiPhilippo, executive director of South Portland Historical Society. “For six years now, we’ve been digitizing and cataloging the photographs and other materials in our archives. This is a very exciting time for us.”

The 7,000 images uploaded to date, each hand reviewed by DiPhilippo after cataloging my a small army of volunteers and interns, as well as a few grantfunded workers, is a small sample of the 17,000 items already digitized so far. And those items are a subset still of the entire historical society archive, which dates an unknown number of items dating back to the group’s founding in 1962.

DiPhilippo said the society will continue to prepare its digital archives for upload, with plans to add “significant amounts” of new material to the online museum every month during 2017, and beyond.

According to DiPhilippo, much of the initial online offerings includes pictures of city homes.

“We felt that members of the public might initially want to search to see if a photo of their own home were available,” she said. “Even if someone’s own home is not there, they might be able to see how other homes along their street used to look.”

That strategy seemed to bear out in practice, and both street and neighborhood names have shown a strong presence in early search records. Far and away the number one search term used by people who have visited the new online museum in its first fortnight is “Willard,” DiPhilippo said, followed by a host of other place names, including “Maine Mall.”

To get the best results, DiPhilippo urges users of the site – accessible at www.sphistory.org – to carefully heed the search instructions for when to use “and,” and “or,” or to surround search terms in quotation marks. It can mean the difference between hundreds of hits and zero, she said.

Digitizing museum archives began in 2011 when the organization won a grant through Maine State Archives to purchase a museum software package. Much of the early work went into customizing the software for meaningful local use, DiPhilippo said

In addition to her work on the project, volunteers such Diane Rollins, Sharon Allen and Bob Doan – the latter of whom is also a board member and the society’s collections manager – have spent countless hours pulling photographs and materials from the society’s archives, digitizing them, and cataloging them with the museum software so that materials can be found and viewed with a word search.

Several interns from the University of Southern Maine were also trained and helped to keep the cataloging project moving forward. However, perhaps the greatest progress was made starting three years ago, DiPhilippo said, when member funding was augmented by a grant from the Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust. That allowed the society to hire part time catalogers, who often put in 12 hours or more per week of cataloging time, each, allowing the project to move years ahead of its original schedule.

“It was only then when I began to believe this project might be achievable in less than 20 or 30 years,” DiPhilippo joked.

Then came a final grant that finally made the hope of putting society records and materials online a reality.

“We knew we were close to being ready to take our database online last winter,” DiPhilippo said. “Then, this past spring, Kaplan University expressed their willingness to financially support this project, and we realized that we might be able to take the leap. Additional funding from the city of South Portland, to pay for the annual website fees, helped us to cross that final hurdle. Once that funding came in this summer, we were able to open the program’s online features.

“We’ve been enjoying our database in-house now for several years,” DiPhilippo said. “Having the archives become more accessible digitally has made it easier for us to find our own materials, to curate displays, and, especially, to do research. But it’s exciting that we can now make this available to the general public.”

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