The Hawthorne-Longfellow Library houses over one million books and reading materials that students can check out, but the most precious items—such as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s medal of honor, James Bowdoin’s library, and a handprint from Abraham Lincoln—lie behind two glass doors on the third floor.
The George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, supervised by Director Richard Lindemann, protects Bowdoin’s historical treasures.
Lindemann found his passion as a graduate student in the history program at the University of Virginia, where he trained as a medievalist. Despite his taste for this that epoch, he turned his attention to library work.
“I soon discovered that although I liked medieval things, I wasn’t particularly suited to teaching, but I liked being in an academic environment,” Lindemann said. “Library work seemed to suit me better…Putting my hands on stuff and building is what I like to do.”
With this newfound interest, he proceeded to receive his library degree. After working in other libraries, he became Bowdoin’s director of Special Collections in 1999.
“It was important for me to be working in a place that was academically challenging and where the collections I would see on a daily basis were top-rank. For a liberal arts college, Bowdoin has a Special Collections that is out-of-sight,” Lindemann said.
Bowdoin’s Special Collections offers a vast array of volumes with what Lindemann estimates to be 50,000 rare books and 5,700 linear feet of manuscript material and college archives.
“My main charge is to acquire, protect, and make accessible those materials for scholarly use over time,” Lindemann said.
In addition to overseeing the department, Lindemann also provides community outreach, as the collection is completely open to the public. He encourages students to take advantage of this resource. While Special Collections may look intimidating from the outside, Lindemann encourages students to view it as “a first class lounge in an airport—but they have a card to come inside.”
Lindemann gives students bibliographic instruction, and helps them investigate the history of specific books. Additionally, he curates most of the exhibits his department hosts. The current exhibit in the library is “Bowdoin Boys in Blue and Gray,” a Civil War exhibit as part of Bowdoin’s celebration of the sesquicentennial.
Lindemann makes the decisions about what to add to the collection: he speaks with donors about items they’d like to give the College and also writes grants to assist the department in purchasing new pieces. With limited storage space, Lindemann must carefully decide what is best for the collection.
“We have a collection development policy that describes what our areas of interest are. Those areas are largely predicated on college curriculum and faculty research interest.”
“We also collect opportunity,” he added.
One such opportunity was presented to Bowdoin by Hilton Kramer, art critic for The New York Times. As he planned to retire to Maine, he asked Bowdoin to hold his papers, and the school, having a strong art history program, had a curricular interest in holding them. Without this opportunity, Lindemann said he “would not have actively pursued” Kramer’s papers.
The department also acquired a collection of 1900 pop-up books in a similar manner. A recent exhibit featuring the titles was one of the most popular to date.
The department also owns one of the 119 existing copies of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. Another copy recently sold for 12 million dollars.
College archives constitute a significant part of the collection. Although many records are now digitized, special collections archives about three percent of all of the paper the College produces. While the archives document social life through old editions of The Orient, The Quill, and The Bugle, archiving academic work has been more difficult.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects student privacy and limits what the public has access to in special collections. Because of this, there are few examples of early student writing, which would be of high interest to researchers.
There is typically a 75-year restriction on student papers, after which point they are open to be viewed. However, students may sign a waiver that permits the library to make copies of their honors projects when appropriate and provide public access to their work.
Faculty records also contribute to the college archives when faculty members retire. Copies of course syllabi and records from committees they served on are can be on record in Special Collections.
Overall, Lindemann said, “I don’t think [the archives] show a pattern. I do think they have a consistency in showing how students feel about their college and the relationship between students and faculty.”
“They certainly show a tracking over time of how social conventions have changed,” he added, pointing to 19th century autograph albums and 20th century yearbooks.
On the other hand, the institutional record details the curricular program, such as the change during the Joshua Chamberlain administration from having students read Horace and Cicero to learning about science. It also provides insight into investigations to create a graduate program and to make the College coeducational.
Lindemann said that Bowdoin history “provides a sense of self for the college.”
Looking forward, Lindemann expects that his department will continue digitizing more records, especially those specific to the College that would not otherwise be found. This includes old editions of student publications, like the Orient.
Many rare books will skip the digitization wave because of the historic value they provide.
“We may be retaining a book not because of its contents but because of social history reasons,” he added. “Who read that book? How many people read it? These are all things that don’t speak to the knowledge in the book but the book as a vessel of knowledge.”