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Between the lines with Marieke Van Der Steenhoven

November 17, 2017

Bowdoin’s foundation is its history. For centuries the institution was mostly wealthy, mostly white and all male. These students fought on both sides of the Civil War, influenced federal policy, founded colleges—and invested innumerable resources back into their alma mater. Few are more aware of the school’s rich, complicated legacy and the breadth of its accumulated knowledge than Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, Special Collections outreach librarian and educator. She is determined to confront this legacy and make its bounty accessible to everyone who passes through the Collections’ doors.

The doors to Special Collections and Archives are heavy glass, and flanked on each side by a portion of a wrought iron gate. On one side of the door is the third floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library (H-L), home of J-PB of the Dewey Decimal System—books whose subjects range, respectively, from political science to languages.

The other is Van Der Steenhoven’s rigorously climate-controlled office, where researchers and laypeople alike can find Joshua Chamberlain’s spectacles, medieval illuminated manuscripts and books made of metal, paper towels and sea glass. One book’s pages are each encased in soap, so the reader has to use the soap before being able to read what’s inside.

Van Der Steenhoven’s job is to help others interrogate and activate these materials. Her job is also to protect them, through education and modeling the behavior and skills necessary to engage with the archives. Although careful attention must be paid to the integrity of these materials—for example, pens are not allowed beyond the glass doors—Van Der Steenhoven wants to eliminate “stumbling blocks” that prevent the general public from accessing the archives.

“Unless these tools are demystified a little bit, it can feel impenetrable,” said Van Der Steenhoven.

“Special Collections here aren’t open stacks, right? You can’t browse them. They are listed online, but you have to know what you’re looking for to some extent.”

In pursuit of this goal, she spearheaded monthly page-turnings of John James Audubon’s gorgeous, enormous “Birds of America.” At each page-turning, every attendee gets a custom pin, which some regular visitors collect.

Van Der Steenhoven is also trying to get more academic departments engaged with the library’s holdings. This semester, Assistant Professor of Sociology Ingrid Nelson’s “Diversity in Higher Education” class investigated the history of Bowdoin admissions through the archives.

“I think of my job as a facilitator,” Van Der Steenhoven added. “As a liaison between the collections we have here—that can sometimes be thought of as hidden—and the work that students and faculty are doing.”

Van Der Steenhoven is in her early 30s and young enough to remember this period in her own life. She worked in special collections as an undergraduate at Smith College in the mid-2000s. Originally interested in museum work, she was introduced to handling rare books under the mentorship of Martin Antonetti, a specialist in rare books and manuscripts.

“Before college I had performed in an art museum this beautiful piece of choreography, and I thought, ‘Oh wow, what an incredible way to activate the museum,” Van Der Steenhoven said.

Museum work combined her disparate interests—Van Der Steenhoven majored in art history and minored in dance and Italian. Although she still works curating exhibits for H-L and Space Gallery in Portland, Van Der Steenhoven’s career eventually pivoted in the direction of special collections.

“I was so tired of telling people they couldn’t touch things,” she said. “A document or a book, you need to be able to interrogate it and ask it questions in order to activate it.”

“It’s exciting for me because these materials are sitting comfortably and happily in their climate-controlled homes on the shelves, but it is really magical to watch them come alive when there is someone actually reading them, or doing some sort of visual analysis or in some way interacting with these materials.”

So, after a stint at the Maine Historical Society, Van Der Steenhoven went back to school at the University of Southern Maine (USM), where she earned her master’s in American—specifically New England—studies and worked curating exhibits for its special collections.

While narrow, this focus reflects Van Der Steenhoven’s regional affinity. She was raised on Peaks Island, a short ferry ride away from Portland.

Her youth consisted of bike rides with friends, hours of dance practices and a radio show, run out of USM’s community radio station, WMPG—“Chickens are People, Too”—a program by-kids and for-kids that she ran from age 7 to 18. “It was an idyllic sort of childhood,” she said.

The island is perhaps best known for its arts festival, “Sacred and Profane,” which is held annually in the island’s abandoned WWII military bunkers there during the October harvest moon. Van Der Steenhoven has helped curate the festival for years, but her interests in Maine culture extend past the arts community in Portland into academia and her work in the Bowdoin archives.

“If you had asked me growing up in Maine if I ever would have turned my lens onto Maine in terms of my own academic interests, I would have laughed,” she said, pushing her eyebrows and nose as close together as possible and sticking out her tongue. “But all of the things that made me cringe as a child and as a teenager are all of the things I now look at in fascination.”

“Where are we?” she asked. Again, with incredulity: “Where are we? And how did we get here?”

Van Der Steenhoven sketched answers for these questions working in the archives at USM.

The school’s archives is home to the Jean Byers Samson Center for Diversity in Maine, which includes Maine-related Judaica, Africana and LGBTQ collections.

According to Van Der Steenhoven, Bowdoin’s collections are different.

“Special collections reflect on the what the institution was in the past and what it is to be,” she said.

“One of the things I enjoy as a challenge is being upfront about who’s not being represented in the archives and thinking about ways to tell a story from the silences that are here, in the records that we have,” said Van Der Steenhoven.

“You have to be creative, have to be honest and be willing to look at some uncomfortable things and I appreciate that challenge in thinking about the role of women and people of color and communities that weren’t necessarily on the forefront of Bowdoin in the past.”

Students will confront the narratives that are and aren’t present in the archives next semester, in “History in the Archives,” a class Van Der Steenhoven will teach alongside Professor of History Patrick Rael. Van Der Steenhoven hopes the course will increase students’ “archival literacy”—how easily they feel they can navigate special collections at Bowdoin and at large.

“We’re engaging with the broader context,” she said. “[We want students to have] skills that are transferable, that you can feel confident that you know what you need to do when you walk into an archive, or that you know that archivists and special collections librarians are resources just as much as the materials are resources.”

Special collections librarians used each other as resources at a symposium last month at the Houghton Library, one of Harvard’s special collections libraries. For its 75th anniversary, the library hosted a two-day symposium called “Who Cares?”

“Right? Who cares?” asked Van Der Steenhoven, her voice crisp and clear through the air in her office, regulated at 35 percent humidity.

“Looking around the room at librarians who were attending the symposium, there’s a lot of diversity,” she said. “There’s diversity in age and gender and race, and fashion and style, even just people’s appearances, what ‘professional’ means and the varying degrees of that. It was just so fascinating to look around and hear this very white male tradition of rare book librarians shift into, ‘What does it mean to do this type of work now?’”

“What is our responsibility?”

To confront this question, Van Der Steenhoven will delve once again into the archives and bring the world with her.

Kunica Kuy contributed to this report.

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