“If it tells the story of this city,” then according to Abraham Schechter, “this is the place for it.”
The place is the Portland Room, tucked onto the second floor of the Portland Public Library. It’s home to the city’s archive and special collections of its history.
The “who” is the library’s archivist, Abraham Schechter. A Portland Public Library employee for 17 years, Schechter originated the department, where bookcases, shelves and file cabinets house the story of the city ranging from a vast collection of maps to menus, or even poet Robert Frost’s Collected Poems, published in 1930.
Schechter came to the library with the capacity and the focus for a big project, he tells the Phoenix. The historical room was ready and waiting, so he formed the archive and its mission at the end of 2005.
“I had my work cut out for me!” Schechter said.
Schechter created the college archives at St. Joseph’s College, where he got his start in archival work. He’s been in Portland for 40 years, and is an alum of the Maine College of Art, and Simmons University’s graduate program in Boston. In addition to his passion for archival work, he has experience in calligraphy and book-binding.
Some of the most frequent requests from folks who visit the Portland Room are looking up the background of where they live, or even genealogy, Schechter said. Yearbook requests are just one example. He’ll give the person the yearbook and watch them quickly flip through the pages.
“You can practically see the thought bubble over their head,” he said. “You can see their reverie.”
The public’s ability to view the archives in person was unavailable during the pandemic, but the interest in nostalgia never left.
“Nostalgia is like a medicine for people,” Schechter said, “especially during lockdown.” The visits from people hoping to look through yearbooks or other artifacts themselves became calls and emails, and left Schechter himself to work through what the room had to offer, and tailor it to what folks were looking for.
“I wind up becoming the memory of others,” he said.
That dynamic changed the nature of Schechter’s work too. He began expanding the digital archives so that people could access their nostalgia and their memories from home, growing the Portland Library’s “Digital Commons” which he first used in 2014. Schechter digitized city documents, old newspapers, and even discarded film salvaged from the Gannett Building, which used to sit at 390 Congress Street.
“I wanted people to see what’s here, and I wanted to cheer people up!” Schechter said.
Whether Portlanders want to see Hadlock Field on the day it opened, look back on Becky’s Diner in 1991, or see menus from restaurants that are long gone, like Carbur’s on Middle Street from 1982, it’s all part of the ever-growing photo collection.
Schechter doesn’t plan to stop his work anytime soon. After 24 years as an archivist he admitted one truth about the job — “no one is caught up,” on the curation of their archives. There’s always more to add.