Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Another Kind of Heaven

The peripatetic Jack Kimball is reviewing chapbooks this week, including Ange Mlinko's, and points out that they "look more important than ever as basic frames for a writer's work and process." Indeed. They're the secret history of this thing we do, eluding in their many fly-by-night forms all the bar codification of this sell-or-die culture. I revere them and count a number of them, like my copy of The Hotel Wentley Poems (which I've been carting around since the sixties) among the few possessions I'd seize if this place were on fire.

What I can't figure out is why they're not more celebrated, more treasured and more purchased by libraries, which one might assume would really get what these slim volumes represent. Some do, of course, and in my nomenclature "rare book room" sounds like another kind of heaven. (We'll overlook for now the fact that I don't have entrée to any of these lovely places, certainly not to the special collections or any other collections at Stanford, only two miles away, as WorldCat is fond of reminding me when I look up something I will likely never be able to see. When they call that little window at the front of the library "Privileges," they are not kidding.)

But let's look up some chapbooks at WorldCat and see how the libraries do. I wouldn't expect them to have Mlinko's Children's Museum yet, of course, but (just for example) how about her Immediate Orgy & Audit, which came out in 1996? Five libraries have it: Stanford, Utah State, SUNY Buffalo, New York Public Library and Brown (and you'll find some of those names coming up again and again in chapbook listings). Or let's try Anne Boyer's Good Apocalypse (Effing Press, 2006). Not a single entry, astonishingly enough, and I tried calling it just Good Apocalypse as well. 153 libraries have my Hotel Imperium, a full-length book, but only six bought The Last Campaign, even though it was lavishly produced (with a silver-embossed jacket no less) by the very billable, brick-and-mortar Hudson Valley Writers' Center.

Why is this? Of course chapbooks (for the most part) don't have spines, so they're harder to display, and aren't in high demand in any case at Poughkeepsie Public. But why don't university libraries and larger city libraries aggressively buy them? I have no idea but it seems like an incredible impoverishment of the public (and the scholarly) sphere. Obviously there are things I don't understand, so if there are librarians reading this please straighten me out. In the meantime try entering a few of your favorite chaps at the WorldCat link above and you'll probably agree that the situation at least seems absurd, and perhaps a little bit shameful.


Anonymous said...

Hullo, librarian here.

Thanks for bringing this up.

Chapbooks might not end up in the usual queue for cataloging at many libraries, but that doesn't mean they're not there. special collections departments often have them among writers' archives, or aggregated into a collection that gets one record in the book catalog, something like "The Madge Smith Collection", but may contain many, many titles that person collection, titles that won't come up through a catalog search.

This is one of those cases where you would do well to get in touch with a librarian the old fashioned way - say, at the Beinecke poetry collection or at Wellesley, and ask for a little guidance.


Rachel Loden said...

Dear Librarian,

This is exactly the sort of response I hoped I'd get -- chockablock with information -- so I'm very grateful for it.

Stupid question: what is the old-fashioned way to get in touch with a librarian? Are we talking about letters with stamps on them?

Have been worrying a bit that librarians or others would find my post overly blunt or downright rude. I worship librarians, if that wasn't clear. My best friend is a librarian etc. etc.

Many thanks for listening while I talked through my hat!

spicey said...

No problem. Librarians don't need to be worshiped, but we do like getting calls and e-mails from people who are interested in using our collections to the point where they'll navigate our sometimes archaic systems for keeping track of them.

Your best bet would be to contact the curator, librarian, or archivist who seems to be in charge of the special collection that interests you. i always go to the staff page on the website for this info.

Thanks for the chance to do a little freelance bibliographic instruction! (That's really what we call it...sounds impressive, no?)

Rachel Loden said...

Yes indeed -- you've emboldened me to annoy many future librarians. Thank you.

And speaking of bibliographic skills, it's been pointed out to me that I failed to name the author of The Hotel Wentley Poems. That would be John Wieners, 1934-2002.

Anonymous said...

I will say that I write to a lot of libraries. And while orders are in fact quite rare, you can find almost all the chaps I've done (including the Mlinko) at Yale and Brown--special collections, they seem to be the ones most willing to order chapbooks.

All best,