What’s in a Number?

Editor’s Note: The original version of this post contained several errors regarding the number of items currently in the Maine Memory Network database. The post has been revised to reflect the correct figures.

Item #29398 in Maine Memory. While "29398" appears to be the total number of items currently online, it's actually somewhat lower than that.

As of today, you can view well more than 20,000 historic items on Maine Memory Network. It was earlier this year that we hit and then bypassed 20,000 and could switch from saying “nearly” to “more than” when referring to that impressive number. Now we’re looking ahead to saying “nearly” again as we set our sites on the next big milestone–30,000.

When we talk to folks about Maine Memory, or put those statistics in informational and publicity materials, the numbers speak for themselves. But they also occasionally create confusion. If there are “only” some 20,000+ items in the database, why are item numbers now up in the 50,000s? And why, by the way, can’t you tell us exactly how many more than 20,000 there are?

A just-for-fun search by number: Item #11111 on Maine Memory.

There are logical answers to these understandable questions. As to the 50,000 figure, every time an item is uploaded, it gets a unique item number–the next chronological one available. Items sit in the “offline” area of the Contributing Partner’s (CP) account until getting fully cataloged and placed into “pending” for the MMN gatekeeper, Fran Pollitt, to approve (or bounce back to the CP for more information), before placing them online. If every single item uploaded since the beginning of Maine Memory had gone “live” on the site, there would be exactly as many real items in the database as there are numbers.

However, some items never go online for one reason or another–it turns out there’s not enough information to catalog them, or the image is poor, or there’s turnover at the organization and the task falls by the wayside, and so on. And some records get deleted if the CP decides, in fact, that they shouldn’t put that item online after all. When records are deleted, those item numbers are not reused, so there are phantom records, so to speak, all throughout the system.

Maine Memory item #72--the first item to go "live" in the database--"Thanksgiving Day at Casco Street School, Portland, 1922." (A timely image right now!)

Another little known fact: The first actual, official number used in the system was not 1, or 2, or 3, or anything close to that. In fact, you won’t find anything until you search for item 72. The records prior to that were used during the early testing of the database.

One final point: Due to some new programming in a pilot section of Maine Memory (that will be announced in the coming months), the system thinks it should create a new item number for each image, instead of each record, and many of the new records being uploaded in this section have three photographs associated with them instead of just one. (That’s why it’s still in the “pilot project” stage!)

So what this all comes down to is more than 20,000 items viewable to the public and about 11,000 additional items hidden away in the database either waiting for their moment in the spotlight, or in a bit of limbo. That may not add up to 50,000+, but it’s a pretty darn impressive figure nonetheless. And growing all the time.

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About mainechp

Maine Community Heritage Project at Maine Historical Society
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