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Surprise, surprise! USM home to special collection of pop-up books

Pop-up books capture the imagination of both children and adults.

PORTLAND, Maine — If you’ve ever curled up with a great book, you might feel as though the words just fly off the page while reading.

For some books, words and so much more literally do leap off the page, and we found a collection of these books in a rather unlikely place.

Tucked away on the sixth floor of The Glickman Library on the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland is the Special Collections room. As the name suggests, the books here are under tight security.

But not everything here is serious literature.

This area of the library that houses collections of African American literature and LGBTQ material is also home to a colorful collection of pop-up books.

Susie Bock is the Coordinator of Special Collections at USM. 

"The technical term is 'movable book,'" she added with a smile.  

Pop-up books are those colorful volumes that offer flaps, and wheels, and often fall apart when loved hard by kids. But not this collection. The hundreds of pop-up books here are in pristine condition.

Bock helps to decides what collections USM will accept. 

"Pop-up books are primarily for a lot of their history were children’s books, and children’s books give us a unique view of society," she said. "Children’s books are ways that we imprint on our children, so children’s books often carry society’s values. Maybe not how society really is but what a society thinks about itself."

You see those values reflected in the children’s books each era. For example, when society turned its attention to the environment, pop-up books followed.

"All of a sudden you’ll see tons of pop-up books about nature and bugs and animals of the desert and the ocean and what’s deep down in the ocean," she added while displaying a book about desert creatures. 

The Special Collections, even these moveable books, are here to support all aspects of USM’s curriculum.

"Special collections has been used by many academic departments but mostly in the humanities. When we could sell it to an engineering class, I was like ‘yes!' because the structure used in pop-up books to make things pop-up or to make flaps are of interest to engineering students," Bock said with a smile. 

And all of the special collections don’t just represent literature, they represent history. 

"Student’s get really exciting about handling original materials, historical  materials, things that relate to our community, our communities that we serve," David Nutty, director of libraries and learning for USM, said. 

The books, donated by a Bates professor, were simply collected and never used, which is why they are in such perfect, working condition. The collection ranges from the 1930s to the 2000s, with the majority of books from the '80s and '90s.

"They actually begin as medical texts," Bock explained. "And if you think about it, it makes sense, because in order to study the human body, you have to take the skin off. And once there are muscles. So you have to take those away to see the bone, and then take the bones away to see the organs." 

Bock showed me "The Twelve Days of Christmas," by Robert Sabuda, who is considered less of a book author and more of a paper engineer.

Sabuda's "Wizard of OZ" book even includes special glasses to read hidden text.

By the latter half of the 20th century, pop-up books were playing to an adult audience.

"They also become works of art in themselves," Bock said. "When I think about artist’s books, and there are all sorts of definitions, but for me an artist’s book, the format of the book is as important as the content of the book, and that’s certainly a pop-up book." 

Special Collections at the University of Southern Maine is open to the public. 

Folks must have a photo-ID to register. To learn more about how you can make an appointment to visit the USM Special Collections, click here.

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