History According to Cristina Favretto
by brett sokol
The University of Miami’s Cristina Favretto is preserving South Florida’s almost forgotten past, one page at a time.
Cristina Favretto at the University of Miami Libraries Special Collections, which houses everything from the personal papers of Jackie Gleason to rare books on the city’s history.
“I tell people this is a museum where you can touch stuff,” laughs Cristina Favretto, pulling an ornately illustrated 18th-century tome off a bookshelf inside the University of Miami Libraries Special Collections. There, within a climate-controlled vault, is shelf after shelf of rare books, and box after box of carefully filed manuscripts and documents. “Not everybody can collect everything. If people want to look at F. Scott Fitzgerald material, they go to Princeton. If they’re looking for movie material, they go to USC. If they’re looking for material about the history of Miami, they come here.”
For Favretto, as head of UM’s Special Collections, that’s meant expanding her scope beyond the city’s usual suspects, delving off-campus to secure the personal archives from several decades’ worth of countercultural figures in both the arts and politics. Just as important—whether those materials were written by local captains of industry or by those railing against them, all of it remains accessible to accredited academics and amateur scholars alike.
Favretto looks through items from the Special Collections. “I tell people this is a museum where you can touch stuff,” she says.
Some of Favretto’s finds are of obvious historical importance; others fall into the category of bibliophilic curiosities. More than a few are downright freaky, most notably Miami actor Jackie Gleason’s personal library, donated to UM upon his passing, which was filled with hundreds of personally annotated books on the occult and UFOs. Yet Favretto treats it all with equal reverence. In fact, it’s hard to tell which she’s more enthused over—the personal papers of local writer and cultural provocateur Erick Lyle, better known by his Miami punk rock sobriquet of “Iggy Scam,” or those of former Florida US Senator Mel Martinez. “He resigned from office three days after I met with him, and he agreed to donate his papers to us. People kept asking me, ‘What did you say to him?’” Favretto quips.
Of course, amassing a sprawling print archive does raise nagging questions of relevance. Is a paper-and-ink repository necessary in light of the seemingly all-encompassing Internet? Those are fighting words to Favretto. “I’m not a Luddite, but when you look at older websites, half of their links are already dead,” Favretto counters. “Not everything is—or will be—digitized.”
Moreover, she argues, even for historical material that has been transferred into the digital realm, there’s often no comparison with encountering the original document. Case in point: an 1821 slave register from a Tobago plantation that Favretto currently has on display, and which never fails to elicit a stunned response from visiting students. Digitized narratives from that era may convey the everyday horror of the slave trade, but picking up and holding the actual handwritten ledger used to track the purchase of human beings—and record their burial once they became too ill or physically exhausted to continue laboring—is a uniquely visceral experience.
In the archives, leafing through a 1980 issue of UK magazine The Face, featuring a story on punk musician Poly Styrene. Favretto herself performed in Boston’s avant-garde music scene in the ’80s.
It’s hardly a stretch to say Favretto was destined for her present job. As a young girl in upstate New York, she recalls how each of her family’s five children “got a portion of the basement kitted out for them. One of my sisters had a sewing area; another sister had a chemistry lab. I asked for a little library, and I loaned books to my dolls and made library cards for all my siblings.” When her family relocated to their native Italy in the 1970s, Favretto says she practically lived out of Trieste’s famed bookstores, an affinity that continued when she returned to the United States for college in the 1980s. Eventually landing in Boston, she divided her time between performing in that city’s avant-garde music scene and working in libraries. Positions running archives at Duke University, San Diego State University, and UCLA followed; Favretto has been at UM since 2008.
Her arrival at the relatively deep-pocketed UM has been particularly heartening for those watching Miami-Dade’s public library system—and the archives it houses—lurch from one fiscal crisis to the next, barely able to keep the lights on. “You don’t have to convince people of the importance of the ballet or the opera,” Favretto sighs. “But you do have to convince them of the importance of the written word. And it’s getting harder every day. It seems like there’s always money for new sports stadiums, but not for libraries.”
On that note, Favretto hopes she can help pick up some of the intellectual slack: “We really want to open up to the community, just like the Pérez Art Museum of Miami and History Miami,” she says. “A good special collection should be front and center in a library as a laboratory of exploration. If you go to the art museum, no one’s going to let you look through a sheaf of Degas drawings. But you can come here and look through our oldest, most fragile books. We’re just going to ask you to have clean hands.” University of Miami Libraries Special Collections, 1300 Memorial Dr., Coral Gables, 305-284-3247
photography by mary beth koeth