you can’t you can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t writeFinal stanza from “Berryman” by W. S. Merwin, published in Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).
Back in May, I read this quote in a small exhibition on W. S. Merwin in the main gallery of the Lilly Library. I don’t know why, but this small part of this minuscule, one-case show really spoke to me. It’s stuck with me for several months, especially now that I’m in the thick of writing labels and worrying about if they will be “any good.”
I’ve gotten nearly a third of the labels drafted, which means I’m right on track. And yet, I’ve noticed that these labels seem to be harder to write than in previous exhibits I’ve done. When you have a unifying theme, like a time period or format, it seems easier to tailor your discussion of a given object to that theme. But my theme is connection between (sometimes radically) different things. My approach is to seamlessly integrate an explanation of the significance/interesting features of each object with references to how they connect to other items in the exhibit. It’s difficult because sometimes it seems like the interesting feature overshadows the connecting factor or vice versa. I have to figure out what’s important to highlight and what’s not. As much as I’d like to, I can’t write an academic essay on every one of my thirty objects I’m going to feature. No one wants to stand there and read huge blocks of text!
Also, working on the labels has made me very grateful that I took the Reference Sources for Rare Books class last semester with Joel Silver, the director of the Lilly. As a result of taking the class, I feel more empowered to consult quality reference sources that ensure the accuracy and educational quality of my labels. I don’t know what I would do without Printing and the Mind of Man or the 2nd edition of the Short-Title Catalogue, and I’m bound to use other sources we studied in class.