Library curator retires while still trumpeting Robert Francis

AMHERST — Robert Francis is not the most famous poet to ever live in Amherst, but his long association with the Jones Library and the town makes him an ideal candidate for getting more recognition.

As special collections curator Tevis Kimball retired Thursday after 13 years at the helm of the space best known for its collections of works by Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, she put out a call to make sure the institution finds a way to recognize the legacy of Francis, a poet she got to know well when she first worked at the library more than 40 years ago.

“I feel in my leaving now that we still need to honor Robert Francis. He’s just a fine local poet,” said Kimball of the poet who died in 1987. “I know as a library community we have not fully honored Robert Francis.”

Kimball, 65, first arrived at the Jones in the summer of 1970 while attending the University of Massachusetts. “When I came here as a student I fell in love with the Jones,” Kimball said.

After graduation, she spent two years as a children’s assistant librarian, under children’s head Sondra Radosh, before working 27 years in other libraries and in the private sector, including preparing web content for Northeast Utilities in Connecticut. Her tenure at the Jones, she said, has enriched her life and she is forever grateful for the opportunity.

When the curatorship became available in 2001, Kimball jumped at the chance to return to the Jones.

“I always knew I wanted to come back to Amherst,” Kimball said. “My heart is very much connected to the Jones Library. I’ve met so many wonderful people from around the world and learned so much about myself.”

Francis is one of the people she got to know during her earlier time at the Jones. Kimball still recalls Francis coming regularly to the library, which often had tea and coffee available for patrons and flower arrangements decorating tables. Francis, she said, would grab a cup of coffee, say hello to staff and then head to one of the writing studios on the third floor to compose his poetry.

“Those are very fond memories of the Jones Library,” Kimball said.

While many of those who visit special collections are drawn by their interest in Dickinson and Frost, Kimball said giving Francis more prominence makes sense. He was once referred to by Frost as “the best neglected poet” and his Fort Juniper residence in the Cushman section of Amherst continues to be a place where artists can have year-long residencies.

Kimball said she has talked at length with Donald Junkins, a retired UMass professor, and Henry Lyman, a Northampton poet and friend to Francis who has administered the trust that oversees Fort Juniper, about ways the Jones might better recognize Francis’ achievements.

As curator of special collections, Kimball provides assistance to many visitors. “There are people from all over the world I have the privilege to work with,” Kimball said.

With 2014 being an anniversary year for Frost — he would have turned 140 on March 26 — scholars are frequently coming through special collections looking at his manuscripts in what Frost once claimed was the first serious collection of his work, Kimball said. Dickinson also has a huge following. Kimball recently spoke to 40 visiting teachers in a programs coordinated with the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Independent researchers come from everywhere, such as a woman from China studying Dickinson who couldn’t read English written in cursive. Kimball assisted her by reading aloud Dickinson’s writings.

“It’s a wonderful journey you take with people,” Kimball said.

She observes that special collections has material that aid research that can be done to better understand Dickinson’s time. There are lists of journals arriving at Amherst homes around 1860 and what the cutler store is selling and what the Dickinson family is buying. There are records of the hat factory identifying which women work there and what their salaries are.

The collection has many of the books Dickinson would have used at the Amherst Academy, along with deportment books detailing how boys and girls should look and behave. “These provide great insights into the social life, gender issues and the religions and science of the time,” Kimball said. “For me, it’s a delightful step into a past time.”

Both Kimball and assistant Kate Boyle provide help not only only to scholars, but those seeking personal information.

“In this collection, everything is truly a treasure hunt. I’m constantly stumbling upon something I didn’t know was in the collection,” Kimball said.

She has also aided people putting together books and movies, such as photographer Annie Leibowitz. Kimball said helping such people is “one of the true pleasures of the job.”

There is still a need for thorough cataloguing, but with just two staff members in special collections, the priority has been on customer service.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said Kimball’s passion for special collections is unsurpassed.

“Those who have been lucky enough over the past 13 years to visit Tevis in that space have been blessed,” Sharry said in an email. “Tevis magically and happily pulls you in to her world and makes you feel like you are the only one in it.”

Besides Frost, Dickinson and Francis, special collections has scrapbooks of history of the Jones Library, by first and long-time director Charles Green, who, like Francis, needs to be recognized, Kimball said.

“He’s the one, along with trustees, who’ve worked so hard in the building of this library,” Kimball said.

Green, she said, had the radical vision to make the library feel like a home and be a community center and expose people to the thoughts of the day through community gatherings in a section of the building where an auditorium was once located.

When designated a local literary landmark in recognition of its Frost collection, Kimball invited descendants of Green to be part of the celebration.

Kimball stepped in as interim director upon the retirement of Bonnie Isman in late 2010, spending nearly a year overseeing operations with help from maintenance supervisor George Hicks and information services head Matthew Berube, until Sharry was hired.

Sarah McKee, former president of the trustees board, said Kimball was essential to the functioning of the Jones. “She was a steady hand on the tiller when we needed it. The town is in her debt,” McKee said.

Kimball remained as curator during that time and said it was a challenge. “I certainly gave it the best I could, but there were other talented people who helped along the way,” Kimball said.

As she gets set to depart, Kimball said she hopes Sharry and the trustees will take the inspiration of Green and find a similar vision in how libraries can become more a part of the digital world and the ways in which people access information.

Digital Amherst, showcasing photos and stories, and the Digital Clifton Johnson collection, with help from intern Kirsten Kay, won state and national awards.

Kimball recognizes that accessing material online is critical to the future of libraries and research, though needs to be done in a careful way. “It’s important not to slap photographs out there, but to tell a story,” Kimball said.

She has spoken to Sharry about how the special collections can serve this function.

Upon her retirement, Kimball said she will travel and visit to family and friends around the country. Though she still loves her work, Kimball said.

“You have to wait until you know it’s time to move on,” Kimball said.

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