The Portland Room of the Portland Public Library, which holds the Library’s Special Collections and Archives, is a terrific resource for those interested in the development of agriculture and early records of farm life in Maine. While the collection is not dedicated to agriculture, it is filled with materials that relate to farming and gardening, including Reports by the Commissioner of Agriculture of the State of Maine from the 20th century, Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture from the 19th century, bound copies of Paxton’s Magazine of Botany from 1834 – 1849, an issue of Livestock Monthly from 1885 published in Portland, and agricultural dictionaries from the early 1800s.
Abraham A. Schechter, Special Collections Librarian & Archivist Portland Public Library, maintains the Portland Room ensuring the collection will be available for future generations. Schechter shared some background on the Portland Room.
Among the Room’s holdings are 19th-century rarities dedicated to agriculture in New England. Where do you get such books and publications?
As with the whole Library, my department has a collections development policy, which includes a book and periodicals budget. For the most part, materials are acquired by purchase, but we do receive gift books, and by being very community-involved, I’ve been able to add to the Library’s archival collections. The focus for such accessions is always documentation of the life of Portland.
Special Collections at the PPL has grown into its own in recent years, but its foundation dates back to the years in the Baxter Building, at 619 Congress Street, built in 1889.
What is the main objective of the Portland Room?
Here’s the mission statement, which I wrote when focusing the Portland Room’s collections development policy. This applies for printed materials as well as for primary-source/archival materials.
“…to collect, preserve, and provide access to its collections of rare, historic, and unique books, primarily centered around Maine and Portland subjects, along with related archival materials. We strive to conserve and offer documentation of the life of the City of Portland, including its residents, their activities, their businesses, and the physical aspects of the city, to our patrons. As well, we provide a reading and exhibiting space that is conducive to the study of the City’s history and endeavor to pursue innovative partnerships with neighboring collecting and educational institutions.”
There seems to be a trend with people who are interested in homesteading and sustainable living, have you had an increased number of requests for books on farming, gardening…?
Yes, I have seen this- and it’s an encouraging experience to listen to patrons’ queries and how enthusiastic they are when they see agriculture and craft-related reference tools, particularly from the 19th century.
Are there any books or publications you would like to obtain for the Portland Room?
In my role as steward for Portland history, I’m always looking for narratives and documentation- both as published and as primary sources. The latter can include manuscripts, photographs, and even spoken recitations.
What does no one know about you?
That my most treasured life-experience was living as a Benedictine monk at the Weston Priory, in Vermont. While working with the monks in their vegetable farm and apple orchard (they grow much of their community’s food), I learned about what we called “meaningful work.” This was integral to all I’ve learned over the years about living a spiritual life.
*Read more about Schechter’s experience here.
The Portland Public Library provides the community free and open access to its physical and electronic collections, as well as its informational services. The Portland Room is located on the 2nd level of the Main Library at 5 Monument Square. Portland Room staff are available for research assistance at 871-1700 x747 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(photos by Sharon Kitchens)