Following is a transcript of my talk at AWP 2014 where I presented on a panel commemorating 60 years of the Poetry Center’s Digital Archive. I presented the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange in its current manifestation as both archive and site for circulation of current work. I discussed its creation, development, and direction as digital repository; the importance of community curation, development of collaborative tools within a public space, and original notion of chapbook as gift–sharing poetry as opposed to ownership.
How much agency do we have in deciding what gets saved to define a poetic history or lineage? When we talk about born-digital, electronic, or out-of-print books that exist only as PDFS or Word documents, there’s a huge risk for future data loss due to format obsolescence and bit corruption. Sometimes, these creative losses are a welcome relief – we don’t need to save everything after all nor is it possible to do so. But as communities of practice, it behooves us to participate in the telling of our shared history for future generations by collecting moments enough to define our time.
With the Poetry Center, I’ve taken a small step in this direction by creating an open-access digital repository to help expand and ensure sustained access to chapbooks. The Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange is a community-curated archive created and developed for poets to convene, correspond, and collaborate via chapbooks: the currency of the poetry community. Our mission is to engage our poetry community by sparking dialogues between the chapbooks in the interest of collaboratively building a community archive.
The model for the chapbook exchange was catalyzed by the need to invigorate poetry collections in public libraries and was expanded to include extant poetry communities. This cooperative model has facilitated the compilation of a diverse and innovative collection of poetry chapbooks for public access. We began by inviting a select group of core contributors – and have grown our collection in just a few months to feature chapbooks from over 40 contributors.
Contributors are invited to share their chapbooks via upload and as such gain access to the chapbook repository. They are also invited to recommend another poet to contribute to the exchange. The model is “take a chapbook, leave a chapbook.” The chapbook exchange is a contributor-driven peer-to-peer environment that allows users to exchange chapbooks as a variation on the pay-to-play theme in that in this case, poetry is the currency required for participation.
Deploying Chapbooks as Community-Bonding Tools
Chapbooks have a long history of communicating impelling messages to communities. “From the 16th to early 19th centuries, chapbooks were mass-produced, cheaply made booklets sold hand-to-hand by traveling salesmen, or chapmen in Western Europe and North America.” (Craig, 2011) Today’s chapbooks are regarded as essential to the evolution of ongoing dialogues around poetics and poetry. “…[They’re] part of ongoing poetic conversations, as well as a practice of exchange that is ever present in the maintenance of community” (Craig, 2011). They are often handmade and sold cheaply or given as gifts. The message within often outweighs financial compensation for the author; often, what fuels their tenacity is a desire to contribute to a powerful lineage of poets as well as a commitment to correspondence and collaboration with peers.
A 2009 report from the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute via the Poetry Foundation titled Poetry and New Media: A User’s Guide – describes their “vision for engaging educators, institutions, and communities” and names the importance of open-access publishing and “working to increase the access of poets as producers.”
The Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange aims to foster that ethic, by making available virtual hubs for collaboration and exchange of chapbooks. To augment existing print collections as well as build a virtual poetry collection sustained by global and local poetry communities. We’ve maintained an instrumental role by providing and moderating key access points to this portal to engage local writers. The open-access format is conducive to quick and efficient chapbook sharing, and can serve as a forum for writers and other patrons to communicate and share ideas. We’re interested in capturing the many ways we activate one another as writers in the community.
Currently, the site is in the early stages of what we hope will be a lively and vital cooperative space for poets to practice the continuum of reading and writing in the creative process. Contributing creative works in this forum also allows users the opportunity to generate creative responses to extant works in the collections. As such, this chapbook exchange might be a model for teachers wishing to employ emerging technologies in the classroom to highlight opportunities for both active and collaborative learning.
As a community-curated project, Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange participants are actively involved in the process of archiving their own work. Once they become active members, they also able to assign metadata (or tag) their books with pertinent descriptors to make their works more findable. In doing so, they become agents in the shaping of our shared history for future readers. Contributors also choose their own creative commons licensing attributes and permissions, and can permit or decline use in any number of ways.
The site was built using Omeka: “a free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions.” (Ray Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, 2014). We chose Omeka as our trial platform because of the Roy Rosenzweig and Center for History and New Media’s great reputation for preserving and archiving creative works. Omeka enables participants to control how their work is presented, and offers tutorials to facilitate the user process. Omeka uses Dublin Core metadata standards and allows for user tagging which enables participants to define how items are remembered. It also hosts various plug-ins, which allows users to import myriad file formats.
Cooperative Archiving & Preservation
As archivists, it is incumbent on us to meet certain criteria to maintain our digital collections: digital objects must be controlled, i.e. findable, secure, readable, renderable, and authentic. Digital preservation necessitates the use of metadata by which to store and retrieve our digital objects. A collection must be safe and secured from both internal and external threats. We must also know when to upgrade our software and hardware to maintain readability of our collections. Congruent with readability is renderability; we must know how our digital objects should be displayed.
Though not without its limitations, the cooperative archiving model is an active means toward long-term preservation. First, by crowdsourcing descriptive metadata from the community to assign to our digital collections, we are improving chances for a file’s findability in 10 or 15 years by activating memories of individuals as well as the community at large. Through remembering nuances or details, we give voice to these subtleties and allow for the chance to re-experience lived events through the archive. In this sense we do indeed converse with the dead.
Another benefit of cooperative archiving is the use of community standard file formats, which will aid renderability later when we want to read files. Experts in digital preservation recommend opting for community standard or widely used data formats like PDF because there are greater chances that we’ll have the right programs to open files.
The LOCKSS system, which is also known as (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), may also help ensure that our peers or colleagues will have a copy of our book downloaded to their hard drive. While this is a common preservation method, it is not necessarily the most secure since LOCKSS lends itself to the possibility of copies being whittled down one by one for various reasons (unreadable formats, human error, etc). However, cooperative archiving does allow for more content to be saved due to sheer volume. Lastly, cooperative archiving encourages participants to share their diverse skills, knowledge, and expertise and facilitates opportunities to learn from others in the community.
Some future directions for the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange are to cooperatively bridge the gaps between the historicity of the archive and the currency of pen striking paper. We’re interested in what happens when communities come together to archive the now while also honoring historical conversations around poetics, art, and poetry that helped generate contemporary creative works. As archives are creative forces in themselves, we’re excited by the energetic possibilities for poets to further engage with the collection by producing new works and developing partnerships.
As a cooperatively curated site, the chapbook exchange can also be a self-sustainable method of disseminating the current arcs of various poetic movements and potentially may prove successful in engaging users all over the world. In fact, we recently added a bilingual chapbook to the collection from a poet living in Ireland who had written to us with interest.
Our sense of communing with the dead through the written word, our wonder and fulfillment at the dread and elation of writing – These are some of the reasons we feel called as readers, as writers, and also as archivists. It is this continuum that catches us in its legacy as we root with it. As we live and write we extend laterally to encompass the time we’re in, the currencies moving about, and we pulse on. It is also this vitality and community that we as writers can feel alienated from or urged to maintain. However, our combined resources are mighty – and with a little collaboration and cooperation – we may just keep this thing going.
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