Maine Historical Society reopens library

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PORTLAND — Tucked behind the Wadsworth-Longfellow House on Congress Street, the Maine Historical Society library isn’t a destination for many people.

But with its newly renovated main wing and a new addition, the research facility definitely warrants a peek, even if you’re not tracing family lines or old property boundaries.

The renamed Alida Carroll and John Marshall Brown Library reopened to the public Tuesday, after being closed for two years. The library not only gained a name, it gained 13,000 square feet of space for compact stacks and flat file storage, offices and a conference room, and an overhaul of the heating, ventilation and security systems. The addition has allowed the society to put its entire collection under one roof.

The main building, constructed in 1907 at the direction of Anne Longfellow Pierce, has been polished, painted, re-plastered and has new, custom-made reading tables and chairs lining the middle of the main reading room. Along the outside wall, an original brick fireplace and large windows provide contrast to the new computers and work stations on the opposite side of the room.

One of the library’s namesakes, Gen. John Marshall Brown, was a Civil War veteran from Portland, historical society Executive Director Richard D’Abate said, and a member of the Maine Historical Society.

D’Abate said during a tour of the building this week that Longfellow Pierce, the sister of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, left the Longfellow House and surrounding property to the society in her 1902 will, but stipulated that the society must build a library there. 

“In 1907, it was a new library,” D’Abate said. “The renovation has allowed us to make this a more comfortable and usable place for patrons and staff, and safer for our collections.”

According to head librarian Nick Noyes, about 50 percent of library users are there to research genealogical information. Other frequent visitors include architects, city Planning Department staff and others looking for historical information about buildings and land. The Maine Memory Network is also housed at the society and has a new research space in the library addition.

Much of the Maine Historical Society collection is available online. While the library was closed patrons were able to access the society’s books and maps in a space across the street from its Congress Street campus.

Still, historical society staff were expecting a busy reopening on Tuesday.

“It’ll be a big day, I think,” Noyes said.

Besides work at the library building, the society’s renovation plans include restoring the Longfellow garden – a popular lunch spot for downtown workers – to a design mimicking a garden from 1926. Design and planting will start once the weather warms up. The garden is expected to be completed in time for the library’s grand reopening celebration June 27.

The cost for the first phase of the historical society improvements is $9.5 million, and D’Abate said the group still has to raise about $800,000. 

In the second phase, which D’Abate said the society has already started discussing, the Congress Street building that houses its museum and shop would be torn down and replaced. 

“We’ve started thinking about our museum building and how that’s going to be in the future,” D’Abate said. 

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or





MHSlibrary1.jpgResearchers Candace Gooch, Janice Gower and Gerald Gower, obscurred, discuss the changes at the Maine Historical Society’s Alida Carroll and John Marshall Brown Library with Nicholas Noyes, director of library services, and Jamie Rice, a librarian, just after the library reopened Tuesday on Congress Street following completion of a two-year, $9.5 million renovation and expansion. (Rich Obrey photo)
MHSlibrary2.jpgJust a few blue moving boxes remained in the main room of the Maine Historical Society library on Monday as a two-year, $9.5 million renovation and expansion drew to a close and the facility prepared for its reopening on Tuesday. (Rich Obrey photo)MHS_Library3.jpgDuring its renovation, the Maine Historical Society moved as much of its collection as it could across Congress Street, so researchers could still have access. Movers recently brought everything back, keeping volunteer Ann Clark of Windham busy this week as she put things back where they belonged in the flat file area. (Rich Obrey photo)

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FYI: The Maine Historical Society is at 485 Congress St., Portland. The library is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the first visit is free. For more information, go to or call 774-1822.