PORTLAND — More than a year and a half ago, Portland Public Library officials began talking about how to create more space for their growing collections.

The Maine Historical Society, just one block away on Congress Street, had the same problem. Its second floor reading room was filled instead with manuscripts, maps and other historical documents.

Separately, the two nonprofits did not have the ability to purchase more space. But could they do something together?

“We have collaborated on things in the past, but when you buy real estate together, that’s a bit different,” said Stephen Podgajny, executive director of the Portland Public Library.

In late November, after searching for about a year, the library and the historical society purchased a 35,000-square-foot building on Riverside Street for about $1.5 million. The two organizations plan to renovate the warehouse-style building – previously owned by the printing company J.S. McCarthy – into what they are calling a shared collections management center that will free up critical space at both downtown locations.

“We’ve been full, really, for about a decade,” said Stephen Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society. “It was critical to solve that, but it had to be sustainable to our budget.”

This spring, the library and historical society will launch a $3 million capital campaign that they hope will cover the purchase price and the needed renovations for the Riverside Street location. The prospect of raising the money together, especially when dollars are hard to come by, was attractive.

“Already, we’ve talked to people who have never donated to the library or historical (society) but are interested in this project,” Podgajny said, acknowledging that it’s easier to raise money for capital expenses than operating expenses.

The collections management center will be split more or less down the middle. For the library, it will be a place to store books and other materials that do not have mass appeal but are still important to keep. For the historical society, it will be a place to store collections of documents that are not quite ready for display or documents that are in transition. Recent additions include the Central Maine Power Collection, which documents the electrification of Maine in the early 20th century. And the storage space will be climate-controlled, which is important, Bromage said.

Visitors to the library and historical society likely won’t notice the decrease in materials, but they will notice the extra breathing room. Podgajny said for many years, libraries tried to gather as many titles as they could. Now, he says, the aim is make the experience attractive for the user, and more space will help reach that goal.

It could be six months before the collections management center is complete and library and historical society materials are moved. But both Podgajny and Bromage are excited about the possibilities.

“There are a lot of cultural organizations struggling to find their identity,” Bromage said. “That’s why we think this partnership is such a good investment because it allows us to focus on making the most of our space not just worrying: Where is everything going to go?”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell