Libby Bischof is the university’s Executive Director for the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, located in the Glickman Library on the Portland campus, a comprehensive archive that allows free public access to five centuries of cartographic materials.
“It’s amazing that USM has this place,” she said. “I mean, we have half a million maps that date back to 1475, it’s wild! We are one of the top map libraries in the country.” Bischof became Executive Director of the Osher Library and Smith Center in August 2018 after teaching as a professor of History at the university for 11 years. “I was asked to come run the collection by President Cummings,” she said, “but I’ve had a lot of jobs at USM over time. The one constant is that I’ve always been a professor of history.”
Bischof was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and grew up the oldest of six children in a family that moved frequently. She revealed that moving so often influenced her interest in places and local history. In 4th grade when she was living in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, she took part in a project with the Hopkinton Historical Society and specifically worked on the history of the larger neighborhood she lived in Bear Hill.
“For my project, I remember going into the woods to visit with and interview an eccentric older gentleman who lived in a converted bus and was the expert on the history of Bear Hill,” she said. “I loved interviewing him. I was a kid who asked a lot of questions. I always wanted to know the context of situations, and I still deeply love listening to the stories people tell about themselves and the places they are from”.
Ever since then Bischof said she was searching for answers on how friendship informs cultural production. She decided to go to college to pursue history and attended Boston College on a five-year BA/MA program. She continued at BC through to her Ph.D. in American history. “For me, history was the one subject that allowed me to study all of the different things I was interested in–art, literature, and more.”
Though her passion for it is strong now, she didn’t always know she wanted to be an academic historian. She saw herself teaching high school history and coaching sports; “Teaching brought me into the profession; a deep love for research and writing came later.”
Bischof says the Osher Map Library and Smith Center is internal-facing as well as external-facing, meaning the materials are available not only to students but to members of the general public as well. The reading room and the staff at the map library tailor experiential learning visits to curriculums for around 100 USM classes a year, of all kinds of disciplines.
“We also see about four thousand K-12 students a year, so that’s a huge part of our role,” Bischof noted that many of the USM class visits were being held over zoom due to the pandemic and that all classes for K-12 students have gone online as well. “We can’t have students from public schools in here so we do all of our classes on Zoom. It’s been a wonderful opportunity, we’ve been able to host classes for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to this library even outside of the pandemic.”
The Osher Library and Smith Center also host the finest digitization lab in New England with over 80,000 materials currently digitized for use. The digitization lab has been important to getting materials to people who can’t visit the library because of covid.
Outside of her work at the map library, Bischof is working on creating an archive to document signs created and displayed during the pandemic called Signs of the Times. Built with the assistance of Jessica Hovey, Digital Initiatives, and USM Libraries the project started in April of 2020 as an attempt to encapsulate the historic changes we’re experiencing today.
“I thought, something’s happening. I wanted to be able to document this as a public historian for posterity,” she said, “and because I want someone in my position twenty, thirty, or forty years down the road to ask and see what the pandemic was like here in Maine.” She wishes people had documented things in a meaningful way like this in the past so we could have all related it to our own experiences. “When creating this project I was thinking what would I, as a historian, have wanted to see to better understand the zeitgeist of it?”
She says she chose signs because they’re ephemeral, they mark the constant changes in our environment and once they’re gone, that piece of the puzzle is lost forever. “I get why people would want to throw some of them away. I don’t want to keep the sign that marked my business as closed for 5 months.” But she says every sign tells an important story. They all carry a message and an experience, some universal, that we can use to better understand the history being made right now.
The Osher Library and Smith Center is open for access to all current USM students, and Bischof encourages students to utilize it as a resource and check out the interesting events and programs available. If you want to contribute to the Signs of the Times archive, please email your photos to Libby Bischof here, and visit the archive on digital commons.