May 6, 2022 | NEWS | By Sabrina Brewer | Photo by Bryen Oller
Jessy Randall, Archivist and Curator of Special Collections, discusses her love of the job, the Slocum affair, and her new book of poetry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“I always loved libraries. I always loved reading. I learned when I was a senior in college there was such a thing as library school, that it was a profession. And that was just a huge relief and great joy to me, because it just seemed like, oh, that’s what I’ll do.
My husband and I were dating in college, and we decided we wanted to try to spend the summer together. The one that paid the most was at Houghton, the rare book collection.
They had a Gutenberg Bible, a whole Gutenberg Bible. One of my job duties those summers was to go over to the main library, use a special key to open up the glass case where the Gutenberg Bible was, and turn one page once a month because you weren’t supposed to let the Gutenberg Bible pages fade too much.
I remember being in college, we couldn’t just reach for that smartphone. You either had to write down that question and go to the library or maybe call your friends depending on what the question was. There were delays before you could get to your knowledge, and it took quite a bit more effort.
We have the democratization of information. We no longer say some kinds of knowledge are only for certain people who tended to be wealthy white men. We don’t say, well, you can’t ever know that thing you’re interested in because it would require traveling to Europe.
Socrates had a lot of anxiety about the invention of writing. He didn’t want people to be able to write things down because he thought that would dilute knowledge. To him, if you knew a poem, it was because you knew it in your mind, and you had it there as a thing that you could recite out to other people. It was inside of you, and you were the carrier of it. There was no other way to get access to that poem other than talking to someone who knew it. It’s hard to let go of an idea that oh, well, this kind of thing is better than that. Instead of thinking, well, what does this afford us versus what the other thing afforded us? A lot fewer people can know that poem if the only way to know it is to hear someone say it. Right? That’s keeping it very, very small, the circle of people in the know.
My husband and I, we’d met in college, we broke up for several years. And then we got back together. We agreed that if he got a long-term contract at his teaching job that I would come here, and then if he didn’t, he would come to Philadelphia. So it all hinged on that.
He did get that contract. So I showed up here, just figuring well, I’ll probably have to commute to Denver if I want to do anything with rare books and manuscripts. Then it turned out I got pregnant and had a baby right away. But then the job at CC opened up which I had been watching carefully ever since we started talking about living in the Springs.
I went to the job interview for that position when my firstborn child was six weeks old. I mean, I had to pump milk during the day long interview. I didn’t want the team to know that I had a tiny baby at home because it seemed like that would hurt my chances of being hired even though legally it shouldn’t have. But you know, just in general, I didn’t want it to seem like I would not be able to work. It was a crazy, crazy two-day interview process.
I love working in Special Collections at Tutt Library. I love my colleagues. I love the materials. I love the fact that because we’re so small and teaching focused, I can really build the collection to serve what CC students care about which would be harder to do at a great big university. I can say, well, our students are interested in the history of race and racism. Let’s collect materials that have to do with that.
I now have multiple classes every year who are specifically looking at the history of othering and otherness at the college, at CC itself. That is something I think that’s happening all over the country, students really starting to question their institution’s own history. That has been a fantastic way to think about the inherent biases in archives, and what gets kept and what doesn’t.
One of my very favorite things is when Jamal Ratchford’s history students are all in my reading room at the same time. They’ll be researching their own topics, but right next to them is somebody researching, and they’ll call each other over “Come, look at this.” To just watch that happening without me interfering and without me having to blab on and advise and give my opinion of things is amazing. Watching students who maybe had never thought about some of these things before, not only start thinking about them, but start making connections with their classmates, that’s the best.
I love my work. There are many frustrations of the college. We’ve lost a lot of staff in the last couple of years, we have a lot of vacant positions. People who are here are stretched pretty thin. I can’t leave. I love it. I honestly feel like my work has sustained me through some tough personal times in the last 20 years. There were times when things were going poorly. But at least my work was like, I know what I’m doing there. To be specific, when you have a newborn child, your learning curve is pretty steep. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with that newborn child. I was so lost. Why is my three-month-old crying? I don’t know. There’s no reference interview I can have with this child to figure out what he needs. Motherhood is hard. Librarianship is easy.
When I arrived at CC, I heard about Slocum from multiple people. It was kind of an eye roll, like yeah, everybody knows. I wanted to know what really happened. What did this guy do? Did he leer at a couple students? Was he an actual predator? I wanted to know.
The information that was already out there about the Slocum affair was all written by men and somewhat removed from the primary source material. The two most recent book length histories of CC discuss the Slocum affair without quoting any of the women’s statements. I don’t think either author knew that they were in the archives. It was astounding to find out that a man had copied out statements from women at the time. So I was able to just share those statements.
There’s this myth that archives can be or should be neutral. There’s no neutrality in archives. That’s impossible, but it is possible to present the words of someone from the past without interpreting them. Here’s the actual primary source material, you get to do with it what you will. It was students who said, yeah, we don’t want to live in a building named after this guy anymore. And the college was like, yeah, we don’t want you to be there.
I have a new book of poems coming out this fall about historical women in STEM fields. It’s a research-based collection of poems. It’s very much me doing poems from the point of view of women who faced many obstacles, to say the least, to do scientific and mathematical kinds of work. That was a project that kind of lit me on fire starting around 2016. I suppose there’s a connection here with the Me Too Movement, the presidency of Donald Trump. Once I started writing about women scientists, I kept finding more and more whose stories were just so amazing. They’re now around 100 poems, or about 80 of them in the book. It’s called “Mathematics for Ladies.”