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Special Collections speaker sheds light on the living work of the archive

November 20, 2020

Julia Jennings
"BEYOND THE READING ROOM": Literary Scholar Susan Beegel and Special Collections and Archives Education and Outreach Librarian Marieke Van Der Steenhoven (left to right) discuss the effect of one of Harriet Beecher Stowe's most popular novels on summer tourism in Maine.

In the third installment of the “Beyond the Reading Room” virtual lecture series hosted by Bowdoin College Library’s George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives (Special Collections), literary scholar Susan Beegel joined the Bowdoin community over Zoom on Monday to explore the role of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel in transforming Orr’s Island from a fishing village to a summer tourist attraction. The event was open to Bowdoin students, faculty and alumni, as well as members of the Brunswick community and broader Midcoast Maine.

Within the short span of time that Harriet Beecher Stowe spent in Brunswick during the mid-19th century, she irrevocably shaped the future of some of Maine’s coastal communities. Through the publication of “The Pearl of Orr’s Island,” Stowe painted an image of mid-coast Maine so vivid that readers flocked to the Maine islands to see it for themselves.

“I think the impulse of tourism and the impulse to read are often very much the same. I mean, what are we looking for? We’re looking for beautiful places, interesting experiences, to meet characters; that’s what books are made of and that’s what tourism is made of,” Beegel said.

The lecture specifically explored how Stowe’s fictitious interpretation of the Orr’s Island community became a reality as community members jumped to meet the demand of tourists seeking the world that Stowe created through her work.

Beegel, a writer whose work examines American literature and history, has utilized SC and A for her research on Stowe while also actively helping to grow the College Library’s collections of materials relating to the life and writings of Stowe.

“I grew up on an island off the coast of Maine where the population tripled in the summer, and

so it was really fun for me to kind of make those personal connections as a viewer of her talk,” Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, Special Collections and Archives education and outreach librarian and an organizer of the event, said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I also think that the thread throughout it, which resonates with the work that we do in Special Collections, is thinking about how history is constructed…and reconstructed.”

For this virtual series, Special Collections has welcomed a variety of scholars and artists, all of whom have some connection to the work of the Bowdoin Library’s collections. Previous lectures have featured Maureen Cummins, creator of artist’s books based on historical research, and Pamela Zabala ’17, now a PhD student at Duke University, who has used archival research to contextualize racial bias incidents at Bowdoin. The final installment of the series will occur on December 3 with a lecture from Don Westfall ’72 regarding his research on Bowdoin’s history of land acquisition in Maine.

Through the virtual lectures, the Special Collections staff hopes to maintain engagement and build a virtual community, as well as to explore the lived impacts of materials and the dynamic nature of the archive.

“We started the series this semester [in] an attempt to try to connect Special Collections and Archives with people in the world,” Van Der Steenhoven said. “Normally we do programming that brings people into the reading room for hands-on or close encounters with materials, and so …it seemed like a natural thing to do—to move beyond the reading room and to think about how the materials and the collection have been used.”

While the lecture series has served as the main source of outreach for Special Collections and Archives this semester, Van Der Steenhoven and her colleagues have also been working with the archives behind the scenes. They have partnered with classes and worked to build the library’s digitized collection, which already contains over 300,000 materials.

“[Our work] this semester and moving forward to next semester has been a way for us to sort of leverage the existing digital collections and then also grow those collections as necessary,” Van Der Steenhoven said.

Special Collections hopes to continue offering online programming into the Spring semester, including the virtual revival of the monthly Audubon page turning. Van Der Steenhoven hopes that both the lecture series and the continued engagement with the SC and A will inspire the Bowdoin community to further consider the role of the archive and the evolution of primary sources.

“It’s one example of all the exciting things that people are doing for a wide variety of different reasons,” Van Der Steenhoven said. “Like how people become attracted to and what they end up doing with Special Collections. It’s a way to think about the active life of these materials.”


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