Historical societies, libraries, and museums of the Mount Desert Island region have long been assembling evidence of local history in records and artifacts. Through the History Trust, these organizations are now working together to digitize, preserve, and share the results.
The idea for the History Trust began to take shape nearly a decade ago when a group of island historical societies, libraries, museums, Acadia National Park, and College of the Atlantic came together seeking to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of Mount Desert Island. Known as Friends of Island History, the group cited inspiration from the leaders of the land conservation movement, particularly those who recognized the importance of caring for the island and sparked the movement to place privately-owned lands into trust that ultimately led to the creation of Acadia National Park.
Friends of Island History formed to safeguard the island’s fragile historical resources. The group engaged a consulting firm to assess the conditions of their various historical collections. The study identified great need for acquisition policies, preservation measures, and management systems among at least half of the collections, with troubling backlogs in cataloguing impacting nearly all the organizations.
The group began to work towards a common agenda for cooperative stewardship and by 2017 was meeting as the History Trust. Eleven founding members voted to join the new collaborative the following year. The organization was incorporated as a Maine nonprofit in 2020 and achieved federal 501(c)3 status in 2021.
According to the History Trust’s mission, “The stewards of Mount Desert Island regional collections, united as the History Trust, work together to improve collections care, enhance digital and physical access, and engage the public to better understand and use these essential, irreplaceable historical and cultural resources.”
The History Trust is not a historical society and does not hold a collection of its own. Instead, the organization supports the consortium of historical societies, libraries, and museums in the region in preserving and digitizing their own historical collections.
The Trust utilizes Digital Archive, an online database of nearly 50,000 photographs, documents, and artifacts from the historical collections of History Trust members and others. When each organization digitizes records from its collection, it can add these records to the collective database.
As the history of the towns on Mount Desert Island inevitably intertwine closely with the histories of other nearby island and mainland communities, together they connect the pieces of a much larger story.
In 2021, the Gouldsboro Historical Society became the 13th member of the History Trust and the first member not located on Mount Desert Island or the Cranberry Isles. The History Trust defines its scope as communities adjacent to Frenchman’s Bay and Blue Hill Bay to acknowledge that the history of Mount Desert Island lives on and off the island.
Anyone can use the digital archives (located at historytrust.org) and search among records from each collection.
Perhaps one is seeking information about and photographs of the Norumbega, a steamer that ran for the Maine Central Railroad, providing passenger service around Frenchman’s Bay for 28 years. Searching for the Norumbega in the digital archives will produce a written history of the vessel from the Southwest Harbor Public Library’s collection, a photo of the crew from the Southwest Harbor Historical Society’s collection, and a series of striking images of the well-documented incident “Steamer Norumbega run aground on Clark Point” (collections of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, Northeast Harbor Library, Southwest Harbor Historical Society and Southwest Harbor Public Library), among other records.
Beyond the digital archives, the History Trust has launched two virtual exhibits to share the history housed in local collections and draw attention to the wealth of historical resources available. It is worth noting that the History Trust is a volunteer-only organization and special projects like exhibits are largely grant funded.
Individuals and businesses contribute to support the annual cost of the digital archive. By working together and stewarding the region’s historical collections, the History Trust is making strides to ensure that these resources are accessible now and for years to come.
Raina Schiocchetti is an Island Fellow through the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront, working with the Sullivan-Sorrento Historical Society.