Curating Creativity: Jessy Randall Finds Inspiration in the Archives | Peer to Peer Review

Recently I became acquainted with the creative works of a colleague, Jessy Randall, and I am impressed by the reciprocity between her archival work as the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College and her poetry. Her latest book, Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science, published by Goldsmiths Press and distributed by MIT Press, is a union of research and creativity.

Rachel Bodley (1831-1888)

I was quite boring.
I did science.
I was meticulous.
I don’t have any
funny stories about it.
Stop requiring women
to be charming and delightful!
Just let us do our work.
Thank you.

(From Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science by Jessy Randall)

woman standing between stacks shelving holding old book, smilingRecently I became acquainted with the creative works of a colleague, Jessy Randall, and I am impressed by the reciprocity between her archival work as the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College and her poetry. Her latest book, Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science, published by Goldsmiths Press and distributed by MIT Press (see LJ's review), is a union of research and creativity.

I asked Jessy how her library work influences her creative side, and vice versa. Randall recalled attending “a lecture given by a Colorado College Physics professor, Barbara Whitten. She talked about Sarah Frances Whiting, a woman at Harvard who cataloged stars. A side character in the lecture was Annie Jump Cannon, who cataloged hundreds of thousands of stars, and years later could recognize individual star-blurs.” Randall went on to say at that point “the metaphors are right there for the taking!” She took a lecture from her day job and translated it into creative gold.

Randall’s book publishing experience also comes in handy for students and researchers: “I’m often doing library instruction that connects with writing, publishing, graphic design, form and content.… It can be useful to have that personal experience of watching a text go from manuscript to printed book. When a student asks about a book cover and how much say I had in it, I can explain that it’s a great joy to hand off those decisions to experts.” Because of her commitment and creativity, Randall is a mainstay in multiple programs.

Her latest work brings her creativity and research skills to the surface. I wondered how women in science inspire her in the archives and between the margins. Randall answered, “When I was a kid, I read all the biographies of women in my elementary school library. I went through them methodically, starting with Abigail Adams, moving on to Susan B. Anthony, and ending with Harriet Tubman. Patricia Clapp’s biography of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell made me want to be a doctor—a plan I abandoned the first time I had to dissect a frog. Nevertheless, Blackwell became a lifelong research interest, so much so that school friends teased me that I’d work her into any assignment I could.”

A lifetime celebrating women in science combined with working in a college library have led to unique works of art. For example, her book of visual poetry, How to Tell If You Are Human, combines diagrams and poetry and was inspired by the oft-maligned process of deaccessioning. “Colorado College library did a huge weeding project and all kinds of wonderful books left the building,” she explained. “On my way home, I’d paw through the withdrawn books by the library’s back door. Even though it made complete sense for our library to get rid of those books, it also broke my heart. I found comfort by using their illustrations to make visual poems. I would never have made those poems if I didn’t work in a library!”

In the introduction to Randall’s latest collection, Pippa Goldschmidt writes of her subjects that “the personal and professional lives of these women are intertwined as closely as the two snakes around the caduceus…” (p. xiv). I asked her about Randall’s archives work and how it is similarly intertwined with her creative work, and if it was intentional. “Accidentally on purpose, I suppose,” Randall responded. “Or purposely accidental. Part of why I became an academic librarian is that I enjoy doing research, and I love to do research for poems, too. So maybe the draw of archival work is the same as the draw of creative work, for me. You get interested in something, curious about it, and so you read about it and watch films about it and write about it and talk about it with your friends. And sometimes the result is a poem, or maybe a whole lot of poems. Maybe too many poems!”

Randall’s recent work highlights the systemic barriers women in science face. Colleges and libraries continue to contribute to those barriers; I asked how her work helps push back. “Librarianship has traditionally been one of the few career fields for women, but the reasons for that are complicated, and so are the power dynamics,” she said. “Archivists, on the other hand, were almost always men when I was coming up. So I felt that by just being a female archivist, that I was already fighting the good fight. Of course, that’s not enough—it wasn’t then and isn’t now! In the 20 years I’ve been an archivist, students have become more and more likely to interrogate the system they’re in.” Randall recently used her research and archival skills to help a group of students, faculty, and staff petition to change the name of Colorado College’s Slocum Hall in light of sexual misconduct allegations on the part of former college president William F. Slocum; the building is currently called North Hall, with a permanent renaming process in progress.

While commemorating Bertha Parker Pallan, an indigenous archeologist, Randall writes:

In archaeology, we look
under the layers.
Slowly and with care.
There’s never nothing there.

The same can be said about Randall’s work, library communities, and archival collections.

Jessy Randall’s poems and other writings have appeared in McSweeney’s, Poetry, Nature, and Scientific American. Her recent books include Suicide Hotline Hold Music (Red Hen, 2016, includes comics), How to Tell If You Are Human (Pleiades, 2018, diagram poems), and Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science (Gold SF, 2022). She is the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College, where she teaches a class called The History and Future of the Book.

Dustin Fife is College Librarian for Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO and was a 2016 Library Journal Mover & Shaker.

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