John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Program moves to fully virtual exhibit this year


“Collection of Ernest J. Gaines,” the Ernest J. Gaines Center, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Ernest J. Gaines is the author of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Emma Bartlett, Arts and Culture Editor

Since 2001, the Roger Williams University Library’s John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Program has honored a significant or culturally impactful book each year. The selection committee seeks literary work that is close to celebrating a notable anniversary and is valuable to the university community. This year, the RWU library is recognizing “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” by Earnest J. Gaines. The fictional autobiography tells the story of race in America through the eyes of an ex-slave whose life takes place from the end of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement.

“This book, which really takes on issues of race and a history of race in America through a very personal lens, felt like the natural pick given the moment we’re in culturally,” said Adam Braver, library program director and associate professor of Creative Writing.

The exhibit is normally held in person, but it was launched digitally this year due to COVID-19.

“There has been an online exhibit since 2004 but [it] has not been as sophisticated as this,” said Christine Fagan, the university’s collection management librarian.

Currently, the digital exhibit holds manuscripts, reviews, foreign language editions, student art and more research surrounding Jane Pittman. There is also a timeline listing the historical progression of events that occurred throughout the character’s life that gives context to the period. Gaines is also highlighted on the exhibit through photographs, interviews, correspondence and a list of his other written works.

The website is also highly interactive, with photographs that turn around and reveal information as well as pages that make sounds when you digitally turn them. Heidi Benedict, the university archivist, worked on this as well as shortening Gaines’ interviews so students could engage with the content without having to commit a lot of time to the process.

Between scanning, digitizing and formatting the archival work, the process of creating a more elaborate and interactive website has been stressful, but it has also had its benefits.

“It changes the audience from being something that is meant for people in one space to something that is accessible to really all of the world. The exhibit goes beyond our community and friends. It’s now open to anyone in the world who’s interested in getting more insights about Gaines,” Braver said.

In the past, the exhibition was limited by space, which meant not all of the archival research students and faculty discovered could be included. With the online exhibition, more information can be uploaded and the website can continue growing. The RWU community, therefore, has access to more rich material than they would have previously in a physical exhibit.

For this program, the RWU library connected with the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in June and began working on collecting material for the exhibition. The center obtained all of Gaines’ papers after he passed away and was very willing to share the information they had. Since then, they have helped digitize information for the exhibit. In normal years, archival work would be selected by RWU fellows who would travel with a staff member to another library to conduct archival work. With different circumstances in 2021, the RWU library and Ernest J. Gaines Center worked closely in gathering materials for the exhibit.

In addition to the digital exhibit, there will be three events for this program. On Feb. 24, the Rogers Free Library in Bristol will host a virtual book discussion starting at 7 p.m. On March 2, the town library will host a one-evening writing workshop where attendees will craft a new work with inspiration from Gaines’ book. This event will be held virtually from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. On March 15 at 7 p.m., the RWU library will host a virtual panel of keynote speakers talking about race through storytelling and music. The panelists include writer Danzy Senna, jazz musician Michael White and Cheylon Woods, archivist and Head of Gaines Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. A recording will be made available for students who cannot attend.

Copies of Gaines’ manuscript with the print next to it are some of the ways RWU library has put together this year’s exhibit. (Roger Williams University Library)

Implementing a virtual keynote panel has allowed the university to bring together people of different backgrounds who students may not have gotten the chance to hear speak if the event were held in person. The online platform offers a unique opportunity for students as the university celebrates Gaines’ work. For those looking to access the digital exhibit or find out more information about the three additional events, visit the RWU library’s website and locate the program under the “What’s New” section on the home page.