June 29, 2000 Vol . 18, No. 5
By Carol Thorbes
Gene Bridwell (above) is modest about his accomplishments as SFU's special collections librarian. After almost 30 years of service in the job, the former U.S. sailor, who first came to SFU as a humanities librarian from Southern Illinois University in 1969, retires in June.
"When I arrived, the university's mandate as a collector of contemporary literature with a focus on American writers had already been decided," states Bridwell. He adds SFU English professor emeritus Jared Curtis founded the university's collection of the 19th century British poet William Wordsworth's work in the early 1970s. "Like your typical male shopper, I just went out and acquired what we needed."
Bridwell notes that the direction he got from SFU's contemporary literature collection (CLC) committee and the leads he got on collectible material in casual conversations with faculty members helped him do his job. "It was a locker room conversation with composer Raymond Murray Schafer about his acquaintance with Ezra Pound that led to our acquisition of letters written by the American poet during his incarceration in a psychiatric hospital," remembers Bridwell.
However, the librarian's ability to coax dollars out of departments and gifts out of authors has also helped. Under his care, SFU's special collections library has gone from being a smattering of material in a cubby hole to being a whole floor of more than 20,000 books, 1,600 periodicals, 900 poetry broadsides, 1,000 audio tapes, 70 videos and 180 metres of manuscripts worth millions of dollars.
Some of Bridwell's colleagues credit him with being the primary architect of one of the three greatest collections of post modern poets in North America. They point to his endless curiosity about promising new writers and impressive grasp of 20th century literature as reasons why we have the working papers of major contemporary writers such as bpNichol, Michael McClure and Frank Davey, with exclusive rights on the collection of their completed works. "People have come from all over Canada, the United States and Europe to work in the shade provided by this collection," observes SFU English professor and author George Bowering.
Other faculty members note that we have the finest Wordsworth collection in western North America thanks to Bridwell's tireless efforts to acquire the first editions of the writer's poetical works and his travel books. "Gene is one of the best librarians I know. He cares deeply about the culture of books," says SFU English professor Roy Miki.
Bridwell says the real kick for him over the years has come from helping researchers locate their own nuggets of gold in SFU's special collections library. He plans to spend much of his retirement puttering around a second home in Cuba. He hopes to pursue other personal projects like his recent bibliographic study of more than 100 novels written in English about Cuba, Cubans and Cuban Americans.
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