Cumberland students, historians collaborate to bring town history to Web

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CUMBERLAND — A historian by training, Prince Memorial Library Director Thomas Bennett takes every chance he can to preserve and organize Cumberland’s past.

While his staff holds down the fort day to day, Bennett spends much of his time on things like compiling the history of Cumberland roads in a directory on the town Web site. He recently organized the early vital records of the town, beginning before it broke away from North Yarmouth, in a book that’s sitting at the publisher’s right now, and he’s helping the town build a database of veterans dating back to the Revolutionary War to be used by the Town Council’s Veteran’s Monument Committee when they design a monument for the town.

So when he heard that the Maine Historical Society was offering a $7,500 grant to local libraries working in collaboration with schools and historical societies to create an online historical exhibit, Bennett jumped at the opportunity. His application in 2008 was declined – only eight towns per year for two years are part of the project, and more than 50 applied – but the tides changed this year and the town of Cumberland was selected to participate in the Maine Community Heritage Project.

Over the next year, Bennett and the library will facilitate collaboration between the Cumberland and North Yarmouth historical societies as well as a Greely Middle School social studies class to create five interactive online exhibits which will become part of the Maine Memory Network’s online collection.

The “online portal,” he said, allows historical societies across the state to highlight their collections, preserving them digitally, and the grant itself gives much-needed resources for those groups to organize their piles of photos, records, and artifacts.

Based on the collections he knows exist between the two towns, he said one of the five exhibits will focus on transportation, utilizing Skyline Museum’s carriage collection as well as the local road histories Bennett has already compiled. Bennett envisions a Flash animation showing the roads evolving over time, along with other technologically exciting pieces designed mostly by students.

“That’s exciting, to potentially create that kind of stuff,” he said, “and a way those kids might become interested in history. Young kids today are excited about technology, and in turn they can help older residents of society interested in history with online exhibits.”

Bennett hopes a second exhibit will focus on local Civil War history, because Cumberland has a collection of artifacts that could be combined with a North Yarmouth collection of Civil War letters.

But regardless of what the effort creates over the next year, Bennett is mostly excited to see the library “help bring two groups really interested in the same purpose (together) to preserve the history of our communities,” and make their collections more accessible.

Over the last 20 years, he said, Cumberland has seen half its population turn over. That means 50 percent of the current residents are newcomers, and “anytime there’s dilution of the shared memory of history, there’s a potential for losing that history. That’s all the more reason to preserve it.”

Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or