Jeanne Drewes: “I Fell in Love with the Books”

Few Americans were allowed to travel to Cuba in 1998, when Dr. Jeanne Drewes, a native Kansas Citian and UMKC alum who had worked at both the UMKC and Linda Hall libraries, went to Matanzas while head of preservation at the Johns Hopkins Library. Her goal was to research the Archives on Caribbean Slavery, which were located in the same building as Ediciones Vigía.

“By happy accident,” she recalls, she encountered the Vigía crew and soon found herself on the assembly line creating books.

Drewes traveled to Matanzas several more times for work-related projects. She continued to volunteer on Vigía’s “assembly line.” She also bought more than 100 of their books, which she recently donated to the LaBudde Special Collections at UMKC University Libraries.

In a recent interview, Drewes, who is now Acting Director and Preservation Director for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., answered the following questions:

Why did you decide to donate your collection to the UMKC Library?

I felt that UMKC would help to realize my hope for this collection, which is for students and researchers to use them…When I met Stuart Hinds and Bonnie Postlewaite at the UMKC Libraries I just knew it was the right place for my collection.

Why do you think you became so personally involved with Ediciones Vigía?

I simply fell in love with the books. They were so creative in design, and rough but elegant at the same time. I loved how they mixed up the children’s and adult’s books, with children designing some of the adult volumes and adults creating the most beautiful designs for the children’s books. . .There is a poem about a trashcan being an ordinary thing, but in the moonlight it too can look beautiful. In the same way, Vigía took ordinary things like used coffee grounds, or bird seed, or used candles, and incorporated them into beautiful covers for books, many of them by world-renowned authors.

As an expert on how books are made, what do you find most compelling about the Vigía books that you are donating?

The book structure is really of interest. . .The fold-outs and the covers and inserts are so creative in their design…The shapes and covers make the volume compelling, and then there is often a surprise inside with a bookmark, or a fold-out or a letter, or a banner…There is always the excitement of opening a new Vigía title knowing there are surprises to be found, sometimes after many times of looking at it.

How do you think these books affected Cuban culture, if at all?

When Vigia began in 1985 there were only official publications by the government, which did not include many foreign authors, and indeed didn’t include many Cuban authors… Saving the heritage of the rich literature of Cuba has had and continues to have a great impact for Cubans, who have extremely high literacy rates. Everyone reads, and through Vigía they read interesting authors, read stories of their country, read literature from around the world. And remember that many of the volumes are for children, and that has a great impact as well. Vigía donates a certain number of their titles to the public libraries in Cuba. The Matanzas public library has one copy of every publication. Cubans as well as tourists buy the titles, and when you see a copy in a used book fair in Havana you can tell the book has been read and read.

A viewing of the Cuban books and a lecture by Jeanne Drewes, “Unbound: The Artistry of Cuban Bookmaking,” will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 27 at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library, 800 E. 51st St. The event will be held in the library’s LaBudde Special Collections located on the third floor. A reception begins at 5:30 p.m. For more information, 816.235.1531 or library.umkc.edu.

CategoriesLiterary Visual
Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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