The Maine Humanities Council just appointed its first new director in 10 years, Samaa Abdurraqib. It’s a good moment to review its work and purpose.

Audience members watch during a 2018 live broadcast of the “Maine Calling” radio show at the Maine State Library in Augusta. The event featured authors of books featured in the ReadME program, sponsored by the library and the Maine Humanities Council. The books – “River Talk,” by CB Anderson, and “Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town,” by Susan Hand Shetterly – were recommended by Paul Doiron. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, File

The humanities: literature, history, language. Reading, thinking, discussing, perhaps writing about people and their relationships with their past, their present, their future. That’s what the humanities are. They reach various people in various ways.

Academics, professors and students work at the humanities. Colleges and universities in Maine will keep this sort of activity going. The Maine Humanities Council has supported and used this expertise through advisers to programs and speakers at its events and long-running programs like Winter Weekend (an annual seminar at which non-academics intensely study a work of literature).

Supportive programs in libraries and other public venues keep regular readers in touch with each other. An interest in literature or history needs the support of discussion, dissent and agreement. The Maine Humanities Council provides topics, books and facilitators. Introductory programs meet the needs, perhaps not already perceived, of those who haven’t been reading, or who have missed out on certain kinds of reading. Effective programs have had military veterans reading classics (“The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are about war and about veterans coming home) and health care professionals testing their humanity through literature. Programs like this have spread beyond Maine.

At its most basic, introduction and support mean achieving fully functional literacy; schools haven’t done this for everyone. Gifts of books can further people’s interest. New Mainers may need help with English; they certainly present the opportunity to explore the humanities in many tongues and ways. (Amjambo Africa, a newspaper distributed by the Press Herald and supported by the Maine Humanities Council’s sister Maine Arts Commission, publishes in English, French, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, Somali, Portuguese and Spanish.)

The council supports many organizations and projects that bring humanities to new communities. Small grants can make all the difference in putting photos or archival materials online or presenting regional history to local and wider publics. Indeed, support for public history, like reading programs, is a tremendous help to those adults who realize that it’s been a long time since they read or thought about things beyond immediate necessities.


I’ve benefited greatly from the Maine Humanities Council’s work. As an intern there in 2006, I learned about the great diversity of literature in Maine while working on the council’s 30th anniversary gathering. I watched a brilliant teacher explain some of the intricacies of interviewing to aspiring local historians. At Winter Weekends, I’ve enjoyed thinking about Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” and Conrad’s “Nostromo” not only as classics of English literature, but also as timeless – or, at least, timely – studies of human nature, human relations, politics – all the things that make up the humanities.

My preferences may be antiquated. Innovation is an essential part of the council’s work, introducing new literature and ideas and rethinking the old. Afro-futurism, identified as a primary focus of Maine Humanities Council programming last summer, may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a dynamic new literature.

The council must continue to strike a balance among all these activities, a balance that, no doubt, must change over time.

Last but not least, there’s advocacy. The Maine Humanities Council cannot be always neutral or apolitical, just a space for debate. Like the American Civil Liberties Union (humanities and civil liberties overlap and intermingle), the council must fight: against those who would starve the humanities, censor libraries and muzzle teachers. It’s a full agenda.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: