Creative Writers in the Rare Book Room

Erica Olsen | November 2009

University rare book libraries are often thought of as repositories for dusty old tomes—more dead poets society than a place for living authors.

In fact, many rare book libraries house contemporary materials such as literary manuscripts, small press publications, and artists' books. (Within university library systems, rare books and manuscripts are often called "special collections." Manuscripts and personal papers—such as handwritten or typewritten documents, letters, and diaries, as well as digital files—may also be housed in repositories called archives. What special collections libraries and archives have in common, and where they differ from other libraries, is that they emphasize preservation as well as access to materials, due to their age, fragility, or rarity. Typically, access is controlled, stacks are closed, and materials do not circulate. For more detailed definitions of terms, see the Society of American Archivists glossary online at

Daniel H. Traister, Curator of Research Services at the University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library, has been a prominent advocate of cross-promotion between special collections libraries and the creative writing community. In a 2003 article in the journal Library Trends, Traister observed that writers have been an underserved and overlooked audience for rare book and manuscript libraries. He wrote: "Where the rare book collection is not held to a chronological limit but is also interested in, say, the papers of living writers, occasions for cooperation with colleagues in creative writing can promote the collection in several different but complementary ways. Readings, by themselves or associated with exhibitions that take a work from manuscript to printed book, can demonstrate to a colleague who is also a potential donor that the collection is interested in documenting the present as well as the past. Such a demonstration may well have the additional pedagogical benefit of reminding students as well as faculty that one's collection is not simply a mortuary for the safely dead but is also engaged with the not-so-safe alive and kicking."

Traister was writing from the librarian's point of view. The same observation might be made from the perspective of creative writers and writing programs: they may be missing out on the outreach possibilities that these libraries offer.

At institutions that are bringing special collections libraries and creative writers together, the benefits to writers and writing programs can include prestigious event venues and opportunities for increased publicity and cross-disciplinary collaboration. Here's a look at several creative programming initiatives at Texas State University-San Marcos and the University of Pennsylvania.


Live at the Archives

Texas State University-San Marcos is the home of the Southwestern Writers Collection, a literary archives housed at the university's Alkek Library. The university has an MFA program in creative writing based in the Department of English.

The Southwestern Writers Collection preserves and makes accessible the papers and artifacts of writers, filmmakers, and musicians of the Southwest. The large, varied collection includes the papers of Cormac McCarthy and Sam Shepard; a collection relating to Hispanic writers; materials from the pathbreaking Hecho en Tejas: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature (a volume in the Southwestern Writers Collection Series), edited by Dagoberto Gilb and published by University of New Mexico Press; the archives of Texas Monthly magazine; and collections documenting the Fox animated television series King of the Hill and the CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove. The Southwestern Writers Collection is part of the Wittliff Collections, which also include a large holding (more than 14,700 prints) of Southwestern and Mexican photography. (Founder Bill Wittliff wrote the screenplay for Lonesome Dove, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry.) Since its establishment in 1986, the Southwestern Writers Collection has grown to over 6,000 linear feet of materials, including literary manuscripts, screenplays, correspondence, and audio recordings.

Public programs have been a part of the Wittliff Collections mission from the beginning, according to Michele Miller, their Media Relations and Publications Specialist. The wide range of programming includes exhibitions of materials from the writing and photography collections, literary readings, panel discussions/symposia, and book sales/signings.

The Wittliff's public programs are closely connected to the university's educational mission. Miller says the founders saw literary archives as a learning opportunity for students. Exhibits of literary archives would expose students to the writing process, from rough drafts to printed book. Readings and other events would give students the opportunity to meet living writers.

In addition to the Wittliff's own events, their exhibition galleries serve as a venue for readings sponsored by Texas State's creative writing program, including MFA student readings and the Therese Kayser Lindsey/Katherine Anne Porter Reading Series (which also takes place off campus at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center in nearby Kyle, Texas).

Tom Grimes, director of the MFA program, says, "The University Endowed Chair in Creative Writing reads twice a year at the Wittliff Collections. Tim O'Brien, who has been our endowed chair holder since 1999, has read there on numerous occasions, as have other visiting chair holders such as Li-Young Lee, Denis Johnson, and Barry Hannah, during their year on our faculty."

Promotion of the reading series is a cross-disciplinary effort that also involves the university's Department of Art and Design. Graphic design students read works by upcoming visiting writers and design postcards and posters, which the Wittliff Collections produce and distribute. The design students gain real-world production experience, while the library and the creative writing program benefit from advertising that stands out from run-of-the-mill flyers announcing campus events. "Many of the posters have won national prizes for graphic design," Grimes says. Some have been published in design magazines.

Miller, the Wittliff's publications specialist, is a writer herself, with an MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona. She led the effort to present MFA student readings at the Wittliff Collections. There are three readings per semester, one each month and usually five students each time. The readings take place inside the literary exhibition room. It's a great atmosphere, according to Miller. "They're reading their works surrounded by manuscripts and books and photographs." The Wittliff Collections also offer a strong sense of place, with Saltillo floor tiles and other Southwest-style decor.

Wittliff Collections events can draw large audiences—more than 600 people for a Lonesome Dove photography book launch and exhibition, for example. More typically, according to Miller, they see 150 to 200 people attending readings; big names might draw 300. They've even had live music at some of their events.

"We're not averse to rockin' the library when it's called for," Miller says.


Creative Writers, at Home in the Library

The University of Pennsylvania's Rare Book and Manuscript Library is located in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. With more than 300,000 printed books, more than 11,000 linear feet of modern manuscripts and more than 1,600 codex manuscripts, the RBML is the kind of research collection you would expect to find at an Ivy League institution.

The University of Pennsylvania has a Creative Writing Program with an undergraduate concentration for English majors. The university is also home to the Kelly Writers House, a community-oriented nonprofit organization that hosts a wide variety of public programs, including readings, film screenings, and workshops. Erin Gautsche, the program coordinator for Kelly Writers House, describes it as a "hub" for writing activities of all kinds.

At Penn, writers are also finding themselves at home in the rare books library. There, in addition to the very old and very rare—the RBML holds more than 560 books printed in Europe before 1501—they can find contemporary materials such as the work of Harry Matthews and the archives of American Poetry Review. And the library's collection of artists' books has been attracting the interest of creative writing and graphic design students.

Lynne Farrington, the library's Curator of Printed Books, emphasizes the diversity of the collection. "We're not stuck in the sixteenth century, but we're not stuck in the twentieth century either," she says.

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library has its own gallery, on the top floor of the library building, and a tradition of presenting exhibitions with a contemporary focus, such as shows about concrete and visual poetry. The library has also shown work produced by the Common Press, a campus letterpress printing studio that is a collaborative venture between the RBML, the university's School of Design, and Kelly Writers House.

In a recent Common Press project, creative writers (most were undergraduates) working through Kelly Writers House produced a book inspired by the visual resources of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Knowing that the writers would provide the words, Gautsche sought Farrington's help in locating images for the book. They examined works dating from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, in Latin and French, replete with imagery of the plague and other medieval terrors. It's the kind of material that usually gets the attention of those researching dissertations. Creative writing students, not so much.

"I said, find us your coolest monsters," Gautsche recalls.

The collaboration led to production of a contemporary bestiary, a collection of pieces in diverse forms, from poems to news reports. The illustrations combined a contemporary design aesthetic with ancient imagery.


Archives in the Spotlight

In recent years, several symposia have drawn attention to the very notion of archives and their meanings for contemporary writers and artists. In 2007, "The Archival Impulse" at Tate Britain in London brought artists, archivists, and theorists together to discuss ideas of "the archive" in contemporary art. In 2008, at "Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, and Institutions" at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, authors, archivists, librarians, and book and manuscript dealers gathered to consider issues regarding literary archives. A companion exhibition, The Mystique of the Archive, was on view at the Ransom Center that fall.

In short, archives may be shedding their dusty image and becoming almost trendy.

Any increased visibility and public awareness of manuscript repositories is a plus, of course, for the writers and writing programs that are collaborating with them. Such collaborations can offer immediate benefits in terms of publicity for both parties.

For creative writing programs that want to expand their events beyond bookstores, cafes, and campus lecture halls, it's worth reaching out to the rare books/special collections library or archives at your institution. Does their collection include contemporary materials? Do they already present public programs, such as open houses or talks by visiting scholars? Does the library have exhibition space available? If so, they may be receptive to partnering with a campus writing program and have the facilities and experience to work with you.

Keep in mind that special collections libraries and archives need to protect their holdings from damage and theft. Some institutions have the space and staff to handle public events. At Texas State University-San Marcos, items in the Southwestern Writers Collection room are safely behind glass. During receptions, food and drink are limited to the foyer. Facilities staff are available to move furniture and set up seating.

Repositories that don't have the space for readings may be interested in cosponsoring readings that take place elsewhere in the library.

Look for interdisciplinary opportunities, such as collaboration with graphic design faculty and students to produce advertising pieces, broadsides, and other publications.


Archives of the Future: Writers as Prospective Donors

Beyond the short-term benefits of public programs and outreach, collaborations between repositories and writers can also have far-reaching effects on collection development and even on literary reputations. As Dan Traister observed in his Library Trends article, "librarians must be aware of the potential of creative writing colleagues as future donors of their own manuscripts and publications."

Archives and libraries sometimes purchase the archives of well-known authors for very large sums. Recent headline-making sales include the Cormac McCarthy archives to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State for $2 million in 2008 and the Norman Mailer archives to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin for $2.5 million in 2005. But sales like these are the exception, not the rule. Most libraries and archives acquire most of their collections through donations.

Complicating the situation, however, is an aspect of U.S. tax law that favors sale rather than donation of literary manuscripts. Under current tax law, authors who donate their papers to libraries or archives can deduct only the cost of the physical materials (for example, the paper or computer disks that hold their manuscripts). Ironically, if the papers were owned by a collector who then donated them, the collector would be allowed to take a deduction equal to fair market value.

It wasn't always this way. Until 1969, artists and collectors were both allowed to take a deduction equal to fair market value of the donated materials. The Tax Reform Act of 1969 changed the law pertaining to artists, because it was thought that some artist donors were claiming more value than their works were worth.

Proponents of S. 405, the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, would like to change this situation. The bill, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and introduced in February 2009, would "amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide that a deduction equal to fair market value shall be allowed for charitable contributions of literary, musical, artistic, or scholarly compositions created by the donor." In his statement introducing the bill, Senator Leahy said, "Under current law, artists who donate self-created works are only able to deduct the cost of supplies such as canvas, pen, paper and ink, which does not even come close to their true value. This is unfair to artists, and it hurts museums and libraries large and small that are dedicated to preserving works for posterity." Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) joined Senator Leahy in introducing the bill.

The proposed bill includes safeguards to prevent abuse, including provisions for appraisals of value. The amount of the deduction would be based upon the donor's adjusted gross income earned from art.

Senator Leahy sponsored the same bill in the five previous sessions of Congress, but it failed to become law. In May 2009 a spokesman for Senator Leahy said that while the Obama administration may be more supportive of the Artist-Museum Partnership Act than the previous administration—Obama was a cosponsor of the previous incarnation of the bill when he was a senator—at the same time, Congress has many other priorities, not least of which is dealing with the economic crisis. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Finance, which means that it is still in the first stage of the legislative process. As of November 2009, there were 19 Senate cosponsors for S. 405, and 59 cosponsors for the companion bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 1126. Senator Leahy's office remains hopeful about passage of the bill.


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