Thriving collection catalogs history

Arts & Culture Featured

By: Max Lorber, Arts and Culture Editor

Through two sets of secure doorways, the second requiring a visitor to be buzzed in by a staff member is the Glickman Library Reading Room. This is where the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity and the coveted USM Special Collections of historical documents, artifacts, photographs, prints, manuscripts, and rare books are cataloged and preserved for academic research.

According to Susie Bock, the coordinator of Special Collections and director of the Sampson Center at USM, the primary source materials available in the Reading Room bring color to the stories of the past by offering the viewer a chance to look into a distant era and, allowing them to gain a new sense of perspective of the period they are studying.

“All of life is made up of material culture,” Bock said while discussing the importance of preserving pieces of history. “People create things for a purpose, and the things they create carry that history with them.”

She pointed to a poster created by the United States government during World War One depicting a woman holding a tray of donuts behind a male soldier. Next to the woman, in red lettering, reads “The Salvation Army Lassie”. Bock said that this print not only describes the war effort in the early 20th century, it also tells the story of gender dynamics and the status of women at this time.

“These posters capture society’s morals at that time, and that’s why primary materials are important,” Bock said.

The Reading Room hosts classes for many different departments at USM, where students can review primary source material and gleam the stories they tell about the past.

“Last semester we had over 50 classes,” said Julie Cismoski, one of the Special Collections librarians and primary contact for professors interested in utilizing the Special Collections for their students. The classes Cismoski mentioned included english, art, education and nursing classes. “It gives them a sense of their profession. For example, nursing started to be viewed as a profession during the Civil War. Students can see they are part of a longer tradition.”

Bock described how important a physical document or poster is to learning about history, and how it contextualizes history in a way secondary sources are unable to do. She said reading about the history of slavery, for example, is, of course, informative, but looking at a primary source document that shows how pervasive and omnipresent the institution of slavery was, creates a vivid depiction of that ugly chapter in American history.

USM Special Collections has three distinct sections: the general rare book and manuscript collection, which has a cache of rare books and personal documents of prominent historical figures from Maine; the university archives, containing USM historical records and the records of the university’s precursors; and the Sampson Center for Diversity, a collection of various materials showcasing the history of Jewish, African-American and LGBTQ communities.

The Sampson Center for Diversity was started in 1997 by USM Provost Mark Lapping. He proposed to merge a collection of materials donated by Gerald E. Talbot documenting African-American history in the United States and a collection of material documenting the LGBTQ communities in Maine.

These two collections and a Judaica Collection, which would depict the history of the Jewish communities in Maine, came to form the Sampson Center. Bock took the helm in 1999, and said the collection has blossomed under her direction.

Most materials cataloged with the Special Collections has been made available online with Digital Commons, a database which can be accessed through the USM website.

“We actively support the academic mission of the university,” Bock said.

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