Yesterday afternoon in Moulton Union, The Association of Bowdoin Friends organized its first talk of the new year as part of its ongoing lecture series connecting Bowdoin to the Brunswick community:“What’s So Special About Special Collections?” The talk was led by Special Collections Education and Engagement Librarian Marieke Van Der Steenhoven and informed the greater community about the importance and uniqueness of Bowdoin’s Special Collections.
The Association of Bowdoin Friends is a group of Brunswick-area community members that share an interest in the well-being of the College. With over 1000 members, the association holds a lecture series on the first Thursday of the month.
Van Der Steenhoven highlighted Bowdoin’s vast collection of books, and how it has been shaped through the development of the College curriculum, from the early 1800s to the present. Books in Bowdoin’s collection date as far back as the 15th century.
“We have a lot of collections that relate to the Civil War, collections from Catherine Furbish, an 18th century botanist; Parker Cleveland was a 19th century faculty member here and the very first professor of math, but he’s also this amazing mineralogist and wrote the very first US textbook on mineralogy. And we have the papers of George Mitchell. We have a really amazing collection of over 650 manuscript collections,” Van Der Steenhoven said.
In addition to speaking about the contents of Special Collections, Van Der Steenhoven emphasized that Special Collections aims to increase engagement with the broader community through collaborations with different courses.
“We had the most class visits we’ve ever had: We had 55 sessions with Special Collections last semester comprising over 30 classes. That’s across 16 different departments and programs,” Van Der Steenhoven said. “So that’s exciting to me, because to me, that is demonstrating that there’s relevance in these old materials [for] classes that are being taught here, and students are getting hands on with those materials—and student engagement grows out of that.”
Community member Jeanne d’Arc Mayo was surprised to learn about the level of student interaction with the Special Collections department.
“It’s not just a situation where you go and look at [Special Collections]. It’s really part of the term learning in the educational process here at Bowdoin, d’Arc Mayo said. “But it’s also amazing that cursive now has to be translated.”
Van Der Steehoven also highlighted other notable events held by Special Collections, including the Audubon page turning event, which happens the first Friday of every month.
“We have a guest speaker every month, we make bird of the month pins and there’s a really lovely community of students, staff, faculty and community members who are all generally interested in birds, the natural world and book culture,” Van Der Steenhoven said.
Community member Jane Littlefield has attended the page turnings and enjoyed the community fostered by the event.
“I’ve been to bird talks and the page turnings, and I’ve been interested in the archives and Special Collections, so I knew [Van Der Steenhoven] would be a very interesting speaker,” Littlefield said.
John Papacosma ’58 was impressed by the work it took to preserve the thousands of records.
“The depth of effort to preserve and package information so it can be available for people is incredible,” Papacosma said.
Van Der Steenhoven concluded by explaining that many students have misconceptions of what Special Collections and Archives means.
“I think sometimes people have an idea that archives are old and dusty, or that it’s just for history majors. But I really think that given the age of this collection and how long this institution has been collecting books, manuscripts and college records, and given the diverse interests of folks here at Bowdoin, I think that there’s something for everyone in the collections here,” Van Der Steenhoven said.