Interview with a Vault Manager

Detail: “Historical-Pictorial Map of Pennsylvania” from “Pennsylvania : Sunoco road map and historical scenic guide,” 1948

If you have ever visited us in person, it’s likely that you’ve met Bob Spencer in the Reading Room. He has been with Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education since its expansion in 2009, and on June 1st Bob is retiring from the OML after 13 years as Vault Manager. His humor, easygoing nature, and enthusiasm for diving more deeply into the story that an object can tell are just some of the wonderful attributes he has shared with us over the years as a beloved colleague. As sad as we are to see him go, we are excited for the next phase of adventures that are ahead for him (and that he will still visit us from time to time). Before he leaves for the summer we asked Bob a few questions about his career and his reflections on working with the OML collections, as he has undoubtedly been an integral part in making the map library what it is today.

JESS: I recall your sharing that you have lived in Indiana and Pennsylvania, and the areas have left a lasting impression on you. Are there other places you have lived that have resounded with you? What brought you to Maine? 

BOB: Both my parents were from southern Indiana–Columbus, Indiana, to be precise–and I lived there in my early years. But from the age of 5 I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, anthracite coal country. So I have a natural affinity for the hill country of southern Indiana, and also of the old coal culture of the Pennsylvania mountains. As an adult I’ve lived in Boston and then in Maine. My wife and I came to Maine in the mid-1980s really on a whim. It just seemed like a nice place to us. And I’m glad we made that whimsical choice, because I love Maine and I love the greater Portland communities especially.

JESS: My understanding is that you came into your role as Vault Manager at OML at the recommendation of David Nutty, the former Director of USM Libraries, and that you worked previously in Acquisitions. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about how you came to a career in libraries? What interested you about working in a special collections library, particularly one that is centered around cartography? 

BOB: I initially had a work-study position in the Glickman Library Reference Department. I was a returning or (non-traditional) student, going back to school in my 40s! I thoroughly enjoyed library work so when the Reference Department got funding for a new support-staff position I quickly applied. So those first few years after graduation I continued to work in Reference, but later I applied for the Acquisitions position when it came open. I think my years in Reference helped me with the public-facing side of library work. I learned to conduct a reference interview and to understand the needs of student researchers. The Acquisitions position, on the other hand, exposed me to the back end or behind-the-scenes side of library work. I thoroughly enjoyed both aspects of library work.

Then, when the Osher Map Library was getting ready to move into its new building, I learned they were expanding their staff to include a new “vault manager” position. With my love of history and of geography, and my knowledge of many aspects of library work, I thought I would be a good fit, and I’m grateful that David Nutty thought so as well.

JESS: You have worked closely with the collections for several years—13 years, is that right? What is your favorite map (or object) in the collections, and why?

BOB: That’s a great question, and one I always have difficulty answering. I suppose the maps I like best are those that depict places I know, places I’m familiar with. So the various maps of Portland through the years which together help to tell the story of the place. 

But the truth is, my favorite map is which one happens to be in front of me at the moment. In my job I accession new maps every week, and they’re all fascinating in some way (sometimes even in an appalling way). And even if I don’t “get” the fascination at first glance, I can listen to Libby, or Louis, or Matthew discuss it and I begin to see the value. This is certainly a job in which one’s opportunity to learn is never-ending.

JESS: Having been with the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Center since its expansion in 2009, you have been instrumental in caring for the collections and have seen OML grow into what it is today. What are your thoughts about OML—then and now?

BOB: In many ways the OML staff had to reinvent all of its workflows and processes when we moved into the new space. We had to figure out how to organize the collection in the vaults, and an efficient way to begin the gargantuan digitization process. In those early years in the new space we also received several very large collections, so the amount of material needing processing was enormous (not to mention much that remained unprocessed from previous donations). In addition, we’ve drastically rethought the ways we organized the material in the vaults on more than one occasion. So I guess what I’m saying is, we’ve come a long way! 

I think that the consistent thread here, though, is the staff. Roberta, our Cataloger, has been here longer than me, and David and Adinah, working on digitizing the collection, almost as long. And the bottom line is, it’s a magnificent staff. Everyone has a strong commitment to preserving and extending the vision of Dr. Osher and the Smith family to make these maps available to the wider Maine community. And Libby Bischof has taken us to the instruction program to new heights. It’s the people who have made the OML such a rewarding place to work!

JESS: I have noticed that you are an avid reader and you always have a great book in hand. What are you currently reading? Do you have any book recommendations for our cartographic/history-loving audience?

BOB: I’ve been an avid reader and library geek since about the age of five. My parents had just divorced and my Mom moved us to a new town (Wilkes-Barre, PA). She had to go out looking for work so she told my big brother, Brent, who was 9 at the time, to take me and my sister (who were 5 and 6) to the library while she was gone. Brent took us by the hand and walked us the 4 or 5 city blocks to the Osherhuit Library, which is a real gem of a place with high vaulted ceilings like a church. I was enchanted from the start!

I like to give myself reading challenges. One of them is to read through U.S. history. Pick a time period as a starting point and read a book covering some major events of that period. Then the next book takes up the narrative of the next period, and so on. In my latest attempt to do this I began with the American Revolution and am now have reached the 1950s with  David Halberstam’s book on that decade. Next after that will be Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault. 

Maps are of course a key tool and primary source for understanding a historical time and place, not only for what they reveal but also for what they conceal. A good book on the subject of what they conceal is How to Hide an Empire, by Daniel Immerwahr.

JESS: You have been counting down the days to your retirement (and letting us know as it gets closer). Do you have any big plans or trips in the works?

BOB: I’m taking things a season at a time. So for now  I have a summer plan and maybe later I’ll have a fall and winter plan! First of all, I’m going to visit my 91 year old Mom (who now lives down in the greater New Orleans area). After that I’m sure I’ll be spending more quality time with my granddaughter, Maddie Jo, and also with her soon to arrive baby sister (as yet unnamed).

I plan to up my game as a gardener and as a home chef as well, and also to ride my bike every day that I can. 

JESS: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in libraries or special collections? Do you have any takeaways from your experience working at OML, for better or worse?

BOB: Have a brain like a sponge. Soak up information. Be an avid learner. But also, have a lot of patience, especially with yourself. When you’re unsure about something, consult with your coworkers. Everyone who works at the Osher Map Library understands that they are a part of something big and wonderful, and also that they have fallen in with a great bunch of people. The staff here is the greatest. It’s why so many of us have stayed so long. There is nothing better in a career or work life than to know you’ll be working every day with a superb bunch of people. Remember to treasure them!