A Walking Tour of the Poets House Library
If you’ve been to Poets House, you’ve noticed the books.
They aren’t quite “countless,” but we do have more than “heaps”—perhaps in the realm of “myriad.” Easily a “panoply.” In fact, over 70,000 items.
“Items” is the key word. Many of the 70,000 in our catalog are books in the familiar hardcover and paperback sense, containing poems by an individual author. Say, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, or Sylvia Plath’s Ariel: single volumes by single poets. These books are the core of Poets House’s Reed Foundation Library, and they are shelved alphabetically by author in our A-Z Collection, with supplementary books of biography, letters, and criticism grouped with the relevant author.
Essential as these single-author volumes are, we have even more on offer. Come follow along and discover more about some of the many types of poetic “items” Poets House collects to fill all of your literary needs, conveniently listed in the order you’ll pass them when walking through the library.
Anthologies are books that collect the work of different poets or writers, usually organized around a central theme: a place, a language, a style or school of poetry, work published in a certain journal or written in a particular workshop, or any other topic the editors can dream up. They’re helpful if you’re looking for a specific type of poem or subject matter, but they can be more than that, too: some famous anthologies served as focal points that helped develop literary communities or increased the visibility of ignored and underrepresented poetries, as with the feminist anthology No More Masks!. Prominently located before our Prose and A-Z collections, our own anthology categories start alphabetically with African poetry and end with World. Stops in the middle include Ancient & Myth, Cooking, Gender/LGBTQ, Law & Politics, and Spirituality, as well as visits to countries and cultures all around the globe.
Chapbooks will likely be familiar if you’re a poet: each one consists of a single set of pages folded in half, then bound at the fold by staples, thread, ribbon, or the maker’s choice of material. Yes, “maker,” because often these are handmade. Despite the chapbook’s small size and ephemeral nature, we consider our collection of 11,000+ chapbooks to be part of our library’s core holdings. Chapbooks often represent early work by well-known poets—and, just as importantly, work by lesser-known poets who operate outside the publishing mainstream, or by any poet wishing to build a small collection of poems around a theme, image, or idea. And because they’re so easy to make at home, they can be full of personality in details like cover art, binding choice, and layout. We keep our chapbooks in the stacks in labeled boxes so they can be accessible to all—visit them after the Z of our A-Z collection. And stay tuned for our soon-to-launch chapbook digitization project, which will make a selection of our rare chapbooks available to flip through online, complete with background about the presses, poets, artists, and literary scenes they bring into focus.
Journals you’ll probably be familiar with as well. Any magazine or periodical that comes out on a schedule in sequential volumes and issues (or tries to!) is shelved in our journal collection. New Journals are stored right at the top of the stairs to the library and include the most recent periodicals as soon as we get them. Older materials are stored right past the chapbook collection. You can find plenty of treasures among them, from early mimeographed works (seen in our 2014 Mimeo Revolution exhibition) to little magazines with tiny print runs (some featured in our 2018 Little Magazine exhibition) to early issues of long-running and essential journals like Poetry.
Another publicly accessible staple of our collection is Multimedia, found at the end of our Journals section. Poets House holds an impressive number of poetry recordings and talks on CD, DVD, LP, and cassette, all of which can be listened to with the equipment in our Axe-Houghton Multimedia Archive. The cornerstone of our multimedia collection is our set of recordings of Poets House events from 1986 to the present, which includes panels, readings, interviews, talks, tributes, and lectures featuring poetic luminaries both living (among them Alice Notley, Billy Collins, Natalie Diaz, and Elizabeth Alexander) and dead (including Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney). Recordings of many events are also available in our online audio archive, to be listened to anywhere, onsite or off.
We’ve reached the geographical end of the library, but not the end of Poets House’s holdings! What’s left are our Special Collections: items not shelved in the general stacks. Consisting of Rare Books like first editions and signed works, as well as materials that are fragile, ephemeral, and otherwise in need of protection, our special collections are stored in our back offices for preservation, but individual items can be made accessible for research or reading by appointment with our library staff. Pictured here are some of our Tiny Chapbooks, all half the size of standard chapbooks, or even smaller. We also have a collection of Special Chapbooks: standard-sized or oversized chapbooks that are delicate, unique, or hard to find.
Artists’ Books are another special collections area Poets House is especially rich in, as poets and their visual collaborators are a decidedly creative bunch, with a tendency to turn what could be simple books into one-of-a-kind art objects. A few different aspects of a book’s production can make it what we consider an artist’s book, all involving extra care and attention, and often distinctive materials. Artists’ books may be printed on letterpress or contain individually made prints or paintings; they can be hand-bound using traditional techniques like Japanese stab-stitching or Coptic bindings; they may incorporate unusual materials like wood or metal, or special paper; or they may simply be out-of-the-box art objects, like the book pictured here, which was constructed with magnets to allow it to form a three-dimensional star when unfolded.
Our Broadsides are also held in Special Collections. A few are on view in the library, too; shown here is a magnificent, delicate framed broadside of a W. S. Merwin poem, on display in our Quiet Reading Room. If you aren’t sure what a broadside is, this is a particularly lovely example—they are single sheets, posters, and unbound pamphlets, often made in small editions and signed by the author. They may seem like a niche format, but many presses make broadsides, as shown by the dozens on display every year at our annual Showcase. Some are created as Word documents and printed on home printers, while others are painstakingly printed one by one at letterpress studios, and still more fall somewhere in between in terms of process and materials. Broadsides have been a means of producing and distributing short texts for centuries—it’s pretty incredible that an ephemeral format that once helped spread 16th-century ballads is still used in much the same way today.
Thanks for following along! Soon to come on the blog, we’ll be looking more closely at some of these formats and materials with individual posts about special items, cool and unusual chapbooks, artists’ books, and more.