April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Benedict Arnold Slept Here: New Life for Local History On-line and In the Community

Steve Bromage, Maine Historical Society, USA


This paper explores the Maine Historical Society’s experience creating, nurturing, and sustaining the Maine Memory Network (, a statewide digital museum. Maine Memory has stimulated extensive historical activity around the state, and encouraged a wide range of local organizations to engage, participate in, and begin to see themselves as stakeholders in the history of their communities.

The technical infrastructure, training, and programmatic opportunities that Maine Memory provides are helping to reinvigorate the practice and value of local history in Maine by making it accessible, representative, participatory, rigorous, and engaging to a broad range of local stakeholders and audiences. This has had major implications for the Maine Historical Society (MHS) – defining new ways for the organization to interact and serve other historical organizations, libraries, schools, and the public – and for the ways that local, state, and national history is being told, shared, and used in Maine. This paper considers key technical and programmatic elements of the project, the dynamics of collaboration at the state and local level, and how these efforts are helping contributors – adults and students alike – connect with their communities and develop 21st century skills. In particular, the paper looks at the importance of establishing collaborative models that recognize and serve the interests of all participants, and the need for digital collaboratives to evolve programmatically as well as technologically.

Keywords: Maine Memory Network,local history, dynamics of collaboration, digital collaboratives

I. Benedict Arnold and the Connection to Local History

So, you are wondering about Benedict Arnold. One of the enduring anecdotes of local history, played out in dozens if not hundreds of communities in the Eastern part of the country, is the notion that “George Washington slept here”, in a house, in our community. Given the extent to which Washington traveled the country as both General and President, it’s not so far-fetched, and the fact is, he did sleep in a lot of places. What the Washington story has done is to assert a connection between the house, town, or Bed and Breakfast that makes the claim and an important, universally recognized national event. It says in some way: we are part of this national story, and we are significant. My point isn’t to question the veracity of these claims, but to pose a larger question: do Washington’s sleeping habits really define or help us understand something important about the history of that community? How relevant is that story, or any other such local chestnut, to our understanding of that place and its relationship to the rest of the world?

Regrettably, George Washington never slept in Maine, but we can claim Benedict Arnold. To many Americans, Benedict Arnold is the arch-traitor of the American Revolution. To many Mainers, Arnold was the trusted General and friend of Washington who led a more or less doomed expedition through Maine in 1775 to attack the British in Quebec. Arnold’s army of one thousand men advanced up the Kennebec River, passing through and receiving help and support from communities like Waterville and Skowhegan, and then cut across a dense and impenetrable wilderness to reach the Chaudiere River, and ultimately Quebec. Arnold and his men encountered brutal conditions and severe hardship, and ultimately were easily repelled by the British. While the mission was all but a disaster and had little lasting impact on the war or Maine, the story is fondly mythologized in a number of Maine communities and has become an important part of state lore.

So what does this all have to do with how we think about technology and the practice of local history?

II. Re-Considering the Potential of Local History

Local history is a potentially valuable community resource, but one that tends to be vastly under-utilized. This is, in part, a question of access. For example, every community in Maine has rich historical resources of some order: there are 223 local historical societies, 77 museums, 288 libraries, 5 archives, and many other organizations with historical collections spread across the state. The materials in these collections – photographs, letters, journals, records, maps, and other artifacts – can stimulate memory, civic dialogue, pride, and a strong sense of local identity. The study of these items is especially useful for students. Interaction with local historical materials – items that refer to familiar names, landmarks, events, and industries – helps students understand their relationship to history, grasp broad academic concepts, and gain a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for their communities. For the most part, though, the public – even within local communities – has extremely limited access to this material. Most collections are held by small organizations run by part-time staff or volunteers. Few of these organizations have the resources to offer substantial public programs or to provide support to local schools. Often, they are only open to the public for a few hours a week on a seasonal basis. But the limited role that local history tends to play in communities is also the result of how it has been perceived and practiced – as something of only local interest, of narrow scope, as historical, and of little contemporary relevance.

III. The Maine Memory Network: A Robust Platform for Access and Engagement

Launched in 2001, the Maine Memory Network (MMN) began as an on-line digital archive whose primary goal was to expand access to historical collections across the state. It has continued to evolve, and has since become a flexible on-line museum that has proved to be an exceptionally robust platform for a wide range of historical interests and activity. The most remarkable characteristic of Maine Memory – and the one that distinguishes it from most other on-line collections initiatives – is the degree of autonomy it gives historical societies, libraries, museums, and other contributors in sharing their collections. MHS provides training, support, and the technological infrastructure. ‘Contributing Partners’ (CPs) choose what material to share, and then all work is done locally. Contributors select items in their collection; scan or take digital photographs of those items; and then, through their own (free) MMN account, use a Web browser to upload, catalogue, and manage the material in the MMN. At the same time, we strive to ensure and maintain the quality and accuracy of material in Maine Memory: once uploaded, each item with its catalogue entry is reviewed carefully by a project cataloguer before it is made public. In order to promote and support high standards, MHS provides extensive guidelines, as well as training, to our contributors. This relatively simple model – and the extent to which it facilitates local representation and participation – has proven remarkably attractive and effective: to date 200 organizations have become contributing partners and have uploaded more than 20,000 primary documents – the building blocks of history – to its database. The site receives 20,000 visitors per month on average and has come to be recognized as a critical piece of the state’s cultural, educational, and technological infrastructure.

IV. The Nature and Centrality of Collaboration

Maine Memory’s success to date can, in large part, be attributed to the balanced nature of partnership at all levels of the project. The most important collaborative relationship is the one that exists between the Maine Historical Society and its 200+ local contributors. Both parties gain significantly from the collaboration – it supports key mission-related activities and deepens the ability of both to reach and serve their constituencies. At the most basic level, contributors receive extensive training and support, access to MMN’s user-friendly technical infrastructure, and the opportunity to radically expand access to their collections. (They pay nothing to participate.) Their collections – most of which have been all but inaccessible – can be shared with and seen by MMN’s large and growing audience: the organization gains visibility, even prominence, within their community and beyond. Participation generally significantly expands the capacity of CPs: staff receive extensive training in digitizing collections, cataloguing, and using MMN’s tools. MHS also shares advice and informal training on collections management issues, fundraising, and outreach to the community. Finally, CPs have the opportunity to participate in a range of programmatic opportunities, described below, through which they can be represented and supported at an even deeper level. These are all powerful incentives for participation. Perhaps most significantly, though, their institutions, collections, and knowledge are valued and given status. The MMN model acknowledges their local expertise, and empowers them to participate and be represented in the telling of Maine history in previously unimagined ways.

For its part, MHS also benefits greatly from the collaboration. The opportunities that Maine Memory creates support virtually every aspect of MHS’s mission and key elements of its Strategic Plan. The network of CPs is essential to Maine Memory’s identity and vitality. They represent 200 moving, contributing parts, continually adding new material that deepens Maine Memory’s on-line content and enriching the site as a whole. The participation of CPs also fuels local interest and helps builds audience for Maine Memory, providing a built-in dissemination network. On a broader level, the relationship with our CPs has enabled MHS to develop far-reaching, meaningful programs to partner with and serve organizations, students, communities, and audiences throughout the state. The training we provide to support Maine Memory gives MHS a structured way to share staff expertise, institutional resources, and economies of scale, and broadly supports the practice of history across the state. This has been transformative for MHS: in the past, geography, a narrower programmatic focus, and limited resources made it difficult for MHS to reach and serve audiences outside of Southern Maine. or to truly fulfill our statewide mandate. Maine Memory is enabling MHS to reach and serve much broader audiences, and to play a far-reaching, meaningful role in the state.


None of this is a given, and a different model would likely have failed to generate a similar level of interest, participation, or energy. MHS is a private and non-profit and has no formal administrative relationship with the 225+ local historical societies around the state, most of whom, too, are independent, non-profit entities. There is a natural imbalance, if only perceived, between MHS, a large (in Maine terms) organization based in the biggest city of a rural state. MHS has a professional staff, a large library and museum, and far more resources than most of our partners. We also have a statewide collecting purview, and significant collections related to many local communities. Each of those dynamics has the potential to lead to resentment. A centralized model – one in which MHS might identify and select local collections to include, provide the labor, and keep more exclusive editorial control – would no doubt have met with skepticism and much less interest and participation. Instead, the collaboration between MHS and its contributing partners has cultivated warmth, mutual support and appreciation, much greater interaction, and a great deal of productive work.


Collaboration also plays an essential role at the statewide level. Maine Memory reinforces a variety of cultural and educational initiatives, and our partnership with statewide organizations offers a critical network of support. Here, too, the relationships are balanced, and the collaboration helps individual partners achieve their own goals while strengthening Maine Memory. Seed funding to develop Maine Memory’s technological infrastructure was provided by the Maine State Legislature through the Maine Cultural Affairs Council (CAC), a legislatively-enacted consortium of Maine’s seven major state and private cultural agencies. The CAC has identified Maine Memory as a critical tool for expanding the access of Maine citizens to their heritage, and provides support, expertise, and contacts, and lobbies regularly on Maine Memory’s behalf. Maine also has one of the best-developed educational technology networks in the country. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) provides free, high-speed Internet access to every public school and library in the state. The Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), an internationally recognized program, distributes laptop computers to every 7th and 8th grade student in the state, and provides ongoing training and support to their teachers. There has been remarkable synergy between MLTI and the Maine Memory Network: MLTI provides middle schools with state-of-the-art computer equipment, training, and support; Maine Memory provides deep Maine-based content and numerous opportunities for students to develop their technology skills in the community. This alignment makes each initiative more effective, and has helped establish Maine Memory as a key part of the state’s infrastructure.

V. Evolution: From Digital Archive to On-line Museum and Beyond

Another important characteristic of Maine Memory’s growth, vitality, and sustainability has been its ability to evolve. Maine Memory has been pushed to evolve by the demands of its users, and encouraged to evolve by the intriguing opportunities it presents for telling history in new ways. The program model and technical infrastructure that have served partners so well have also proven flexible, adaptable, and well-suited to a variety of interests and needs at the state and local level. Every aspect of Maine Memory has progressed: the scope of content, its technical infrastructure, and the outreach model that supports it.

Since its launch, we had heard a drumbeat of calls from people across Maine who assumed and expected that Maine Memory – given its statewide reach, the scope of its collections, the number of prominent organizations involved, and its affiliation with the Maine Historical Society – would provide broader information about Maine history. Project staff had also done extensive research into the needs of various end users – through surveys, formal and informal conversations with experts, partners, and end users, and a series of focus groups. We could see that, as engaging as the raw, individual primary documents in Maine Memory are, they are only a beginning for the public, and often raise as many questions as they answer. People were looking for reliable, easily-accessed answers to basic questions about Maine history: they want to know when and how Maine became a state, what its role was in the Civil War, how it became industrialized. At the same time, MHS staff – and many others – recognized that the dynamics of Maine Memory created opportunities to re-imagine how Maine history is written, presented, and explored by the public. Maine Memory provides access to a vast amount of material that was previously inaccessible, and enables historians and visitors alike to easily browse and study items across collection, institution, topic, and geography. It represents a flood of local material, resources, and information, and vastly expands the perspectives, communities, and collections that can be represented in the telling of history. We had a system for providing access to historic collections in place. The question became: what do you do with it?

In response, MHS began to develop an interpretive infrastructure and framework that provides context and resources to enhance the material in Maine Memory’s database. With grant funding we hired a project curator, and began to develop on-line exhibits that pulled together material from across Maine Memory and used it to explore specific topics and themes in Maine history. Again, the Maine Memory infrastructure proved to be extremely flexible and adaptable. The scope and format of the exhibits varies, depending on the nature of the topic, information available, and interests of the team putting it together. Teams can be produced in many configurations: MMN staff collaborate with guest curators, scholars, and CPs. The impetus behind on-line exhibits varies, too: some were adapted from physical museum exhibits, some were created to mark a particular anniversary, and some simply highlight a particularly rich collection. Maine Memory now includes more than one hundred individual on-line exhibits that explore a wide range of individual topics, stories, and collections in Maine history; each reflects significant collaboration between MHS staff and local contributors.

Initially, these exhibits explored a wide and somewhat random range of topics in Maine history, ranging from major events like the role of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg, to a brief history of the canning industry, to a local Maine girl’s quest to meet Charles Lindbergh when he visited Maine shortly after his famous transatlantic flight. (Please see:

Over time, the depth, complexity, and ability to take full advantage of Maine Memory’s dynamics has grown. A recent exhibit on the industrial development of the cities of Saco and Biddeford is a sophisticated portrait of the evolution of a community over the course of the 19th century and demonstrates the curatorial and interpretive opportunities that Maine Memory presents. Organized and introduced by the MMN curator, the exhibit was created by a team that includes curators from two local museums as well as a history professor at the University of New England. Each created a gallery that explores a different component of industrialization: Mills and Changing Cities describes the broad growth and demographic changes in the community; Making Cloth uses the collection to illustrate the operations of the mill from arrival of cotton, to the operation and role of specific machines, to what it was like working there, to the finished product leaving; finally, The Murder of Mary Bean describes the major social transformation underway as young women came to cities like Biddeford to find work. Together, the exhibit includes material from five collections, multiple perspectives, and the knowledge and expertise of a variety of curators. It uses MMN’s technological infrastructure to present the material in an attractive, engaging way. By far, our most ambitious curatorial undertaking has been the development of Maine History On-line (MHO), a major new interpretive section of the Maine Memory Network that will launch this Spring. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and in development for three years, MHO will provide a comprehensive introduction to key themes, topics, and events in Maine history through illustrated essays written by scholars, an extensive collection of new on-line exhibits, and close study of hundreds of primary documents. MHO will provide broad context for all Maine Memory content and enable MHS to present (and the public to explore) history at multiple levels: work created by scholars is presented alongside and provides context, meaning, and relevance for the contributions of individuals, organizations, and communities across the state.

Maine Memory’s technical infrastructure has evolved to meet and support the curatorial and programmatic opportunities that have emerged. Initially, exhibits were created using Maine Memory’s album tool – essentially a shopping cart that enables users to group, save, annotate, and share items in the database. The album tool allows staff, CPs, and the public to build slideshows – simple on-line exhibits. We have since developed a tool called ExhibitBuilder that provides much more flexibility in how material – including historic items in MMN’s database, interpretive text, and multimedia components – can be presented. These tools have made it relatively simple to gather and present material, enabling staff and contributors to focus less on technology and more on the interpretive opportunities. Most recently, we have developed a tool called SiteBuilder (closely linked to ExhibitBuilder) that enables staff, CPs, and community partners to build their own full-fledged Web sites within Maine Memory. The development of these tools has been gradual and methodical – building off, and adding functionality designed to support, programmatic goals. To this point, we have resisted the temptation to incorporate a variety of popular tools that will likely, eventually, enhance Maine Memory greatly: we don’t have a GIS component, a Wiki approach, or significant social networking tools. Those will come in the future, when we have a clearer sense of how they will further our programmatic goals, and the resources to integrate them well.

VI. Addressing Obstacles to Participation and Collaboration

I want to move now from the bread and butter issues I have been covering – how our digital collaborative is structured, and the opportunities it creates to present history in engaging new ways – to new territory: the opportunities Maine Memory has created to mobilize and enrich local communities. Maine Memory has stimulated extensive historical activity around the state, and encouraged a wide range of local organizations to engage, participate in, and begin to see themselves as stakeholders in the history of their community. Since Maine Memory’s launch, MHS staff members have conducted an extensive, statewide outreach campaign to train local historical societies, museums, libraries, and schools to use and contribute to Maine Memory. This effort has given us the opportunity to closely observe and evaluate the issues that affect the use of MMN, the obstacles to collaboration between local organizations, and the ways that communities use and share technology and cultural resources. We saw that historical societies, libraries, and schools have substantial resources to offer each other and a strong desire to work together, but that persistent obstacles make collaboration between them difficult. We found that most historical societies were eager to contribute to Maine Memory but had limited access to computer equipment and the Internet, and limited staff time to devote to digitizing material; they also lacked comfort and skills using new technologies. At the same time, we were well aware of students’ aptitude for working with computers, and of their teachers’ eagerness to find meaningful ways for students to interact with the community and to develop and deploy their technology skills. The technology infrastructure described earlier (the laptop program and presence of high speed Internet access in every school and library) provided both resources and incentives for participation. We saw that Maine Memory could be the bridge that brings these local organizations together.

A: Case Study: Skowhegan, Maine – Benedict Arnold Slept Here

We worked with a handful of communities to explore the potential of such collaboration. In Skowhegan, for example, a Central Maine community that has lost paper industry and manufacturing jobs, MHS staff organized a series of planning meetings between Skowhegan Area Middle School teachers and staff from the Skowhegan History House. Skowhegan is known, among other things, for being the hometown of Senator Margaret Chase Smith. Much of its history has been shaped by its proximity to and use of the Kennebec River which provided good soil for farming, a transportation corridor for lumber drives, and power for many mills. And yes, Benedict Arnold slept here.

History House staff were eager to participate in Maine Memory but had limited technology resources, and their organization was housed in an unheated building that is closed in the winter – a typical scenario. SAMS teachers were excited by the prospect of helping preserve and share their town’s history on a broader stage. With the encouragement and training of MHS staff, volunteers from the History House began to regularly bring historic photographs to the school to be scanned by the students. The students – who were well equipped and trained through the Maine laptop program – became fascinated by the images they saw: what, they asked, had happened to all of the beautiful buildings that had once lined the downtown? They began to research the history of several buildings and, in the process, learned that the local Grange Hall, a prominent 19th century structure on one of the town’s main streets, was slated for demolition.  The students took action: they made phone calls, wrote letters, and organized a campaign that is helping save the building. In the past few years, the students have scanned and helped catalogue nearly 150 items now in Maine Memory, conducted numerous interviews, researched and created 15 on-line exhibits, and presented their work at a number of community forums. Through this project, the students have created on-line resources that people throughout Skowhegan (and beyond) can use to learn about the town’s history, established a local footing for thinking about economic, social, industrial, Colonial, and medical history, achieved key elements of the Maine State Learning Results, and discovered that they have a voice in preserving their community’s rich past. The promise of this work was cited by IMLS in their report Museums and Libraries Engaging America’s Youth (2007).

B: Mobilizing Communities: The Maine Community Heritage Project

We found that there was huge demand from communities around the state who wanted to undertake such projects. It became clear to us, though, that we needed to develop a more formal program and additional resources in order to promote, manage, and support this work on a broader scale. This triggered the next step in Maine Memory’s evolution: beginning to think about the ways that Maine Memory could serve as a mobilizing force within communities. In 2007, MHS, in partnership with the Maine State Library, applied for and received a National Leadership Grant to develop and pilot the Maine Community Heritage Project (MCHP). Over the past three years, we have guided teams from sixteen Maine communities as they built, within the Maine Memory Network, Web sites dedicated to the history of their communities.

Each team participated in an intensive year-long process designed to help them move methodically from sound project planning, through the development of strong historical skills, to the completion of their Web sites. During the course of their program year, each team:

  • conducted an inventory of local historical resources;
  • identified key local stories to capture and share;
  • digitized and uploaded 100-200 historic items to the Maine Memory Network;
  • wrote an illustrated, 3,000-word narrative of their community’s history;
  • created approximately five on-line exhibits; and
  • pulled the material together in a new Web site within Maine Memory.

The first eight of those Web sites are now live, and the second eight will be launched in June 2010 ( Most important, we saw that the process of researching and creating those Web sites provided opportunities for communities to share resources, technology, and skills, and to learn to collaborate more effectively.

C. New Vision for Local History

We have found again and again through our work with Maine Memory that stories about local people, places, and events have the capacity to serve as a dynamic, accessible cornerstone for broader community engagement and historical understanding. Maine Memory has stimulated extensive historical activity around the state, and encouraged a wide range of local organizations to engage, participate in, and begin to see themselves as stakeholders in the history of their community. We have found this to be a remarkable opportunity to both elevate and expand the practice of history, and to help communities mobilize in vital new ways. Training people to select, catalogue, and digitize material for Maine Memory provides a chance to introduce a wide range of fundamental historical skills – skills that have broad value and are often taken for granted.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 a particular moment in my community’s history and our relationship to the broader world? Because so many people are participating in the process – librarians, students, town officials, community volunteers as well as people affiliated with historical organizations – there is an opportunity to broadly promote, inculcate, and demonstrate a new vision of ‘good history’ that is relevant, accessible, and participatory, and can play a significant, meaningful role in contemporary communities. It engages multiple stakeholders, eachhaving knowledge, resources, and interests to contribute to the process. As we saw in the relationship between MHS and its CPs, local collaboration values and gives status to each of the partners.

D. Pointing Towards 21st Century Communities

The potential benefits here extend beyond the bounds of history. We believe the kind of participation, collaboration, resource sharing, and civic engagement around local history described above provides a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate the role that libraries, museums, and schools can play in nurturing 21st Century communities. First and foremost, collaboration encourages both individuals and organizations to begin to think beyond their institutional purviews and to find common cause with each other and the communities they serve. It encourages participants to identify their own interests and needs; to find common goals with community partners; and to identify skills and resources to share with each other. The projects they undertake require planning, civic engagement, communication, sharing, and creativity, as well as historical understanding and the ability to use technology. These are all critical skills, but not necessarily ones that come naturally to people and organizations. We are now exploring the role that libraries and museums can play in fostering these local partnerships.

VII. Summary: Why Does this Work, and How Can it Enhance Local History?

I think it’s worthwhile to revisit a few characteristics of Maine Memory that make the dynamics and opportunities addressed here possible:

A. Local Autonomy

Maine Memory is designed to give local organizations and communities the tools, training, and support they need to contribute. THEY select material in their collections to share; THEY scan, catalogue, and upload it. While we provide guidance and solicit local input on various content-related initiatives, at no point do we say “give us this” or “we need to take this item back to Portland.” Local contributors are empowered, the economies of scale are multiple, and the overall vitality of Maine Memory is fostered by the fact that it is fed by many local moving parts – 200+ contributors – and is constantly growing and changing.

B. Flexibility

The tools Maine Memory offers let different communities participate in different, locally-appropriate ways: some may decide to digitize their complete collection of 250 yardsticks; some may decide to adapt an exhibit mounted in their building; some may simply decide to digitize and upload a handful of iconic images, loaded with local meaning and resonance, and to leave it at that.

C. Participatory

Maine Memory begs input and participation from the contributing organizations themselves, and, by extension, their communities. It gives numerous people a voice in representing the history of their community. Also, it provides each with opportunities to share expertise and resources.

D. Audience

Perhaps most important, Maine Memory provides a broader stage for local history and  encourages local contributors to think about how their material and stories relate to a wider world. It gives local collecting organizations the ability to include, serve, and connect with people within their communities and beyond. We have begun to see that this broader notion of publication and audience is encouraging people – curators and students alike – to take the task more seriously.

VIII. Conclusion

In Maine, we are seeing that not only can this work re-energize and re-imagine the practice of local history, but it can also support a wide variety of important statewide educational, cultural, and economic initiatives. This work – through its effort to inventory and celebrate local cultural resources, engage young people in their communities, and use technology to address clear community needs – has been recognized and embraced by a variety of key players in Maine. For the Maine Historical Society, we hope that this effort will:

  1. elevate the overall quality of historical activity that is going on around the state;
  2. ensure that Maine Memory continues to grow and be a dynamic, thriving entity that is made vital by the contributions of hundreds of organizations, individuals, and communities; and
  3. that local history feeds, nurtures, and plays a more nuanced role in helping the public explore, understand, and appreciate Maine history in relationship to the rest of the world.


Cite as:

Bromage, S., Benedict Arnold Slept Here: New Life for Local History On-line and In the Community. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted