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The Unexpected Portsmouth Art Gallery




library reference desk


Digitizing Portsmouth


The best work, but not everything in your collection, is on display. A few items are in offices or remain in storage because they are too expansive, too valuable, or too fragile.  A portrait by Russell Cheney, for example, hangs in the Special Collections storage area, because there is not a large enough public wall in a secure location. Certain prints, manuscripts, and photographs are susceptible to fading in the light and remain in the vault.  


But despite the sometimes withering cost of conserving aging artwork, the library is a "community information center," according to its mission.  Special Collections librarian Nicole Luongo Cloutier says that, when it comes to Portsmouth history, the staff is dedicated to "making what we care for more accessible." Their goal, she says, is simple -- to preserve and share.

Easy to say, but not easy to do. Conserving artwork means finding outside funds and grant money, like that from the Rosamond Thaxter Foundation. Students and volunteers too are  essential, Nicole says, for scanning and data entry.


Already large portions of the archived collection can be seen online. For example, Sarah Haven Foster  (1827-1900) produced the city's first walking tour guidebook in 1876. An adventurous traveler, Sarah was also a prolific painter. Currently 174 of her miniature watercolors of Portsmouth and Seacoast towns can be seen online. Another 75 of her detailed and colorful wildflower paintings have been digitized.


Sarah Haven Foster's life ended abruptly, violently, ironically on the corner of Richards Ave. and Middle Street. On August 19, 1900 the 74 year old "grandmother of Portsmouth tourism" was crossing the street in front of her home when one of the new-fangled trolley cars clanged past. Hard of hearing and with weak vision, Sarah stepped across the track, unaware that a second trolley had been added to the line. She was struck and thrown a great distance, and later died of her injuries.


Current digital collections include 178 photos of the city's North End ethnic neighborhood around 1967, before it was destroyed by urban renewal. An enormous collection of 433 images of the South End and Puddle Dock neighborhoods are included in the Haven School Project online.

And that's just the beginning. Nicole points to a number of collections that are "in the pipeline" to be digitized. They include the Adams photo collection, over 400 postcards of the area, and Portsmouth tax records dating from 1821 to 1905. Through online crowd-sourcing software, readers can add their own comments, images, and data.



Also on tap is the enormous collection of a once-famous Portsmouth-born comedic actor. Many years ago, 12 boxes of scrapbooks, photographs, albums, books, souvenirs, opera music scores, watercolors, and artifacts appeared on the library doorstep. They belonged to Henry Clay Barnabee (1833-1917).  Someday, his incredible life will be online for all to see.



These online collections benefit, not only art lovers and historians, but individuals seeking their family histories. Will digitizing collections prevent people from visiting Portsmouth Public Library? Surprisingly, the opposite is true.



"People still need a guide," Nicole says. "Someone to talk to and help them find their way. And that's what we're here for."



To see the Portsmouth Special Collections online exhibits visit

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of 12 books including history books on Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel.  His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See It is available in local stores and in narrated form by 

library James T Fields


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