University of Southern Maine’s LGBTQ+ Collection

A Conversation with Susie Bock

lgbtq student protest
A protest on the steps of Maine’s State capitol building captures the anger of the community when then Governor “Jock” McKernan vetoed the queer inclusive non-discrimination bill. The legislation went through years of being passed and overturned by citizens’ initiatives, until it finally became law in 2005. Augusta, Maine, May, 6, 1993, Annette Dragon Papers.

Susie Bock, the Coordinator of Special Collections and the Director of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine at the University of Southern Maine Libraries, talks with Choice about their LGBTQ+ Collection, which chronicles the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals and communities in Maine.

susie bock headshot
Susie Bock is the Coordinator of Special Collections and the Director of the Sampson Center in the University of Southern Maine Libraries. She has previously worked as an archivist and a special collections cataloging supervisor. In her current roles, some of her responsibilities include collection development and management, maintenance of procedures and policies, and updating the archives program.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

The University of Southern Maine’s LGBTQ+ Collection resides in the Libraries’ Special Collection and forms part of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine. It is the largest, most comprehensive collection of primary materials documenting those communities in the state. Material ranges from oral histories, papers of individuals, and archives of community groups, including everything from handwritten and typed documents, to posters, buttons, photographs, T-shirts, newspapers/newsletters, objects, audio, artwork, and banners.

Who is the intended audience of the LGBTQ+ collection? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

The Collection primarily supports the academic mission of the University, and is used by classes in active learning experiences. For instance, sociology classes used the collections to research members of the community as part of the Querying the Past: LGBTQ Maine Oral History Project. Their research shaped the project, and the audiotapes, transcriptions, and photographs formed a new addition to the LGBTQ+ Collection. University faculty, students, and staff have also used the Collection for a variety of university functions beyond teaching, including outreach programs and promotion.

We also hope to empower and educate the public through direct interaction with the Collection, which we promote in part by hosting programs several times a year. In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, we hosted an author talk and lent two exhibitions to the local public library.

Our webpage provides basic information on the content of and how to use the Collection. Items from the Collection and finding aids (catalogs for the manuscript collections) are on the USM digital commons. There you can also find recordings of our public programs. Not everyone can make it to a live event, so we try to mount our content on the internet to encourage its use as a lasting educational resource. For instance, we hosted the first public program in Maine on transgender students in schools, a program anyone can now watch. Considering that Maine had been debating educational policy regarding transgender students (the State Supreme Court ruling on bathroom use, Doe v. Regional School Unit 26, was in 2013 ), this program in 2014 was timely. The panel was made up of a lawyer, school principal, transgender teacher, parent of a transgender student (from the Supreme Court case), and transgender student, which provided an informative and powerful experience that will have a continuing influence on our state through its digitization.

Some of the first donations received were documents from Act Up Maine and Act Up Portland. How have the archives grown to include not only records, but all types of objects (T-shirts, posters, games, audio/visuals, etc.)? Was there always a goal to include personal items? How do you decide what is or is not accepted?

The mission of the LGBTQ+ Collection is to collect, preserve, and make accessible any primary resources—regardless of format, limited only by the institution’s ability to care for them—representing the LGBTQ+ communities in Maine, with occasional expansion to the Northeast. We do not collect creative works by LGBTQ+ individuals unless the subject is Maine and speaks to its history or culture.

You were a part of the archives when it was still named the “Gay and Lesbian Archives.” Since its start in 1997, the name has changed several times for inclusivity. Why were those changes necessary? How has the archives grown to include the trans, bisexual, and queer communities?

gay Monopoly board game
Gay Monopoly was owned by social group Northern Lambda Nord, which catered to northern Maine and Quebec, hence the French in the organization title. The game celebrates gay life and has become a wonderful tool to teach how material culture carries its history. 1983 Fire Island Games Inc., West Hollywood, California, Northern Lambda Nord Archives.

The LGBTQ+ Collection name-change aligns with the goal to reflect professional practice and inclusivity. ‘Archives’ refers to material with a common creator like the “archives of an institution.” A collection is a group of materials each with a separate origin. Thus the LGBTQ+ Collection is an accumulation of archives of institutions and the papers of individuals concerning the LGBTQ+ communities. The change in term order follows the practice of the LGBTQ+ communities and the library field to honor queer women who have also faced further gender-based discrimination. The increase in terms and the final + represent the respect and acceptance of all members of the community. At the beginning, the Collection primarily represented gays and lesbians, but as it gained fame and credibility, transgender material began being offered. It may sound trite, but collections come when the time is right for the donor and the institution. There are a variety of forces at play, and I have never analyzed our collection development to find patterns, but we never specifically set out to target one group over another in our collection development. Even though the name was not always as inclusive as it is now, the collection policy always was. We have not added any bisexual manuscript material, but not for lack of trying, and we hope to introduce it in the future.

Do you have a favorite artifact or donation?

My favorite artifact is the Annette Dragon photograph accompanying the article “We are Queer….” This one photograph captures the anger of a community that had been fighting for civil rights for years, and at the last minute the governor broke his promise to sign the bill into law. It is also a wonderful tool for teaching students to analyze primary resources. My favorite “collection” was the decision to abstract issues of newspapers/newsletters from individual papers and archives and create full runs of more than two-dozen Maine LGBTQ+ periodicals—a unique resource and the single richest informational source in the Collection. More than anything else, these periodicals have earned my respect for these communities. All of these publications were produced by community groups with few resources, at a time when neither computers nor the internet existed. They were labors of compassion and commitment to reach out to every queer individual living in isolation and possibly fear. They built the community that would successfully win civil liberties and make strides toward equality in society.

On your website, all of the periodicals, much of your programming collection, and a few objects have been digitized. What is the process of digitization? What are the challenges in doing so (funding, staff, resources, etc.)?

The first decision, considering the high cost of time and labor, is choosing what to digitize. You have to consider the condition of the items; you do not want to harm them, but digitization may also help preserve the original by lessening its use. You must also judge the research value, because not everything can be digitized (see previous factors). Hence, considering my remark above, it is not surprising that the first items we digitized were the periodicals. Digitization involves making the image, processing the digital files, assigning metadata, and uploading to a platform.

gay taskforce newsletter
The newsletters in the LGBTQ+ Collection are its single richest historical resource. Maine Gay Taskforce Newsletter, August 1974, Vol. 1 No. 1.

Why is it so important to make sure the LGBTQ+ community has access to a comprehensive collection of its history all over the country?

As a state university we serve all Mainers, near and far, and that is why supporting accessibility and inclusivity via digitization is so vital. This further advances the most poignant reason for the Collection, which is empowerment. An LGBTQ+ youth group visited the LGBTQ+ Collection and as they viewed the display, one person said, “I’m transgender, I know it” and sat down overtaken by emotion. Being there had affected the youths enough for them to say it out loud for the first time. I believe that seeing the artifacts of communities being preserved sends the message that LGBTQ+ are valued. Imagine that scenario I just described happening every day, anywhere, and that is the power of the digitizing the Collection.

The Trump administration has proposed rolling back protections for the LGBTQ+ community (banning transgender people from the military, cutting health care for LGBTQ+ patients, making it easier for adoption agencies to reject same-sex parents, etc.). What is the significance of an archive that celebrates, documents, and empowers this community? What does the future look like for this archive in today’s political climate?

In the face of the Trump administration’s attempt to move policy backward, the LGBTQ+ Collection’s mission to educate and empower is even more critical. When you see a face in the crowd, it becomes easier to accept instead of segregate, to love instead of hate. The Collection presents the story of our neighbors, friends, and family. And that makes Trump’s efforts problematical and unsustainable. Legislation can help change society, but its culture is less volatile. The LGBTQ+ Collection arose from the University, known to be LGBTQ+ friendly, supported by a LGBTQ+ friendly city. It will take more than legislation to change that culture, and the LGBTQ+ Collection helps reinforce this.

The LGBTQ+ Collection will thrive. In Maine it took twenty years to pass civil rights legislation, a story the Collection is teaching the current generation. The USM and LGBTQ+ communities will fight back as they have done in the past, and it will be done through material culture, whether digital or physical, which we will collect and preserve. History is on our side.


Explore the LGBTQ+ Collection at: https://usm.maine.edu/library/specialcollections/lgbt-collection

This interview was conducted by Grace Lemon. She is a junior at Northwestern University and an editorial intern at Choice.