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Friday, June 1 • 3:30pm - 4:00pm
10. (Book and Paper) (Un)Finished Thoughts: Approaches to Conserving Transitory States in the Working Documents of Gwendolyn Brooks

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“Nothing that happens to you is inadmissible: anything that happens anywhere, anyhow, is valid material for poetry. Love, light, loss, liberty and laceration.” Gwendolyn Brooks, 1917-2000

Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century.  Coming of age in Bronzeville, Chicago, her works captured the Black lives, labor and loves of the Southside.  Brooks went on to receive significant recognition and acclaim as the first Black author to receive the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, and she became the Poet Laureate for the State of Illinois in 1968.  In 2013, Gwendolyn Brooks’ archives were acquired by the University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML), consisting of over 100 boxes filled to the brim with her personal papers.

Brooks was an avid record keeper. Like her experiences, nothing that she wrote—letters, grocery lists, fragments of thought, food diaries, annotated pictures, homemade chapbooks and more—was inadmissible. Her singular, often editorial marginalia and labelling existed on most items she saved.  Moreover, the purposes of her retained materials transformed over time. Drafts became published works, published works became the starting point for new directions, middles became beginnings and beginnings became ends. And while the idiosyncrasy of a creator/collector might be present in any modern archive, Brooks’ papers are especially revealing of her personality, as well as of her innate need to impose a distinctive organization.  It was such a prominent feature of the unprocessed acquisition that it became a separate aspect of the collection that curators wanted to preserve in addition to the physical papers.

In setting out to stabilize Brooks’ “working documents” for an exhibit at the National Poetry Foundation in 2017, several salient issues came to fore.  Firstly, many of her most important drafts were recorded on poor, embrittled materials (deteriorated composition books, newsprint, fugitive inks etc.).  Secondly, much of Brooks’ creative process included intentional damage to her drafts (lacunae or whole pages purposefully removed or reordered).  Furthermore, as an archival and unprocessed collection in the RBML, a close relationship of communication had to be established between curator and conservator in order to make long-term care decisions that would not risk erasing or obscuring the heart of the material—Brook’s own care and keeping decisions made during her lifetime.

The state of flux of Brooks’ papers is an interesting if not challenging one for conservators. Early, we are taught to understand “ephemeral” objects and “temporary” bindings.  At least in these cases, the intellectual work is finished even if its presentation is problematic. But, what if the intellectual work was unfinished? What if the value of a document stemmed from its lack of finality, the fact that it was paused forever, mid-thought, mid-sentence? What if the content and not the form is “incomplete” or “ephemeral” or by its very nature, “transitory”? This poster will explore these questions through treatment case studies, as well as examine significant value of the curator/conservator relationship when making decisions for the long term care of such a rare and rich collection.

avatar for Quinn Morgan Ferris

Quinn Morgan Ferris

Senior Conservator for Special Collections, University of Illinois
Quinn Morgan Ferris is the Senior Conservator for Special Collections and Coordinator for Conservation Services at the University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign, where she started as the Rare Book Conservator in 2016. Quinn's current position at the U of I includes conservation... Read More →

Friday June 1, 2018 3:30pm - 4:00pm MDT
Texas Ballroom (Foyer outside Ballrooms - Poster Session) Marriott Marquis Houston