Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

42 posts categorized "Curation"

07 February 2023

Outernational: Researching Black music and its transatlantic connections

Cassie Quarless is a filmmaker was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

As a documentary director, a large part of my job is mining my mind and my experiences for subjects that I am excited about and that I want to share with others. One such subject is the connection and exchange that exists between the music and musical cultures of the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom and West Africa. During my time at the British Library I sought to research this further.

I was really struck by the British Library's collection and its wealth of Black British music, which spans a wide range of genres and styles, from early blues and jazz to contemporary grime and hip hop. The collection holds a wealth of resources for researchers, including sheet music, recordings, and concert programmes, as well as a range of scholarly publications and academic works on the subject.

A black and white photo of a woman singing in a recording studio, with three male instrumentalists playing around her.
This photograph shows vocalist Marie Bryant and bassist Red Callender at a recording session, for the 1944 short film Jammin’ the Blues. Copyright: Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images. This image is featured as part of the British Library's Windrush Stories.

One of the main issues that I had at the British Library - coming from the film/moving image space and having had a background as a DJ - was that I really wanted to be able to riffle through the Library’s collections like one would in a friend’s home or in a record store. After having spoken to and met with various incredibly knowledgeable members of the British Library staff, I ultimately got the hang of the different systems that the Library uses to catalogue its extensive collections and was able to navigate them in a more natural way.

One particular non-recorded music gem for me was the unpublished collection of correspondences by Andrew Salkey, a Caribbean-born writer and publisher who played a crucial role in promoting Black art and literature in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. These letters offer a unique perspective on the experiences and thoughts of one of the leading figures in the Black arts movement, and provide valuable insights into the cultural, political, and artistic context of the time.

I was particularly struck by Andrew Salkey’s correspondences with the Jamaican poet and academic Kamau Braithwaite and what they suggested about the expressed sharing of knowledge and thoughts about art (whether they be visual, literary or musical). Much of the correspondence that I read was dated from the mid-60s and onward into the 70s.

Three men wearing winter clothing and standing in front of a brick building.
This photograph, entitled The Lime, captures Samuel Selvon, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey. The Trinidadian term ‘lime’ or ‘liming’ has a similar meaning to ‘hanging out’, and involves socialising without time constraints. The photo was taken by Horace Ové in 1974 and is featured in the British Library's Windrush Stories.

Both sides of my family are from the Caribbean (Grenada to be precise) and I was always regaled with stories of family ties and friendships that were lost through migration to the United Kingdom, other Caribbean islands or to Latin America. It had basically become a foregone conclusion for me that within the context of the Caribbean and its diaspora, the distance of the sea meant the death or at least serious atrophy of social connections during the 60s and 70s. When it came to music, it was felt that records from the Caribbean came to these shores with much of their context and intellectual intention removed - after all, only the most successful acts actually got to travel to the UK to perform and to spread their messages.

What Salkey’s correspondence with Braithwaite underscored was how much conversation was happening between interested parties across the Atlantic. People were not only exchanging art critique but also referring to their cross-nationally intermingled lives and social connections.

I am sad that my time as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library will end before the launch of its landmark exhibition centred on Black British music presented in collaboration with the University of Westminster. I was, however, definitely impressed by the British Library's collection and the breadth of materials that it contained. The collection not only documents the music itself, but also the broader cultural and social context in which it was created. This includes a range of materials that shed light on the experiences of Black musicians in Britain, including recordings of live performances, interviews with musicians and industry professionals, and articles and essays on the subject.

Two young men and two younger boys in a large room with music posters on the walls and a massive speaker system to the left of the image.
Notting Hill Carnival 1979, Sound System on Portobello Road under the Westway. August 1979. Photo by Adrian Boot. This image is featured in the British Library's Windrush Stories.

As a filmmaker and as a fan of music, my time at the British Library has definitely given me some new and valuable insights, but more importantly it has gotten me thinking even more deeply about the connections that I was looking to elucidate. I will be back here often as my project progresses.

17 January 2023

Sculptures, time machines and vampires: items from the Americas collections on display in Leeds

The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is currently displaying seven items from British Library collections as part of their FREE exhibition, The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture – open until 26 February 2023

Two of the items in the Institutes’ main galleries for this spectacular exhibition are from the Americas collections held here at the British Library. It’s always great to be able to loan items from the Library to other museums and galleries. For starters, it means more people gain access to viewing the works, those who might not ordinarily consult collection items in the Library’s Reading Rooms, or be in the London vicinity to see items on display at our St Pancras site. Secondly, it’s wonderful to see the items interpreted by a multitude of experts and curators, often placing the item in a completely different context from the library setting we’re used to. In this case, as the title of the exhibition suggests, the books are alongside an array of fantastic sculptures as the display brings into focus a rich yet largely overlooked body of sculptural work collected in Britain between 1850 and 1900. The exhibition examines objects that introduced colour and new materials into the sculptural process, situating them within the context of the anxiety which often weighed upon Victorian society in the face of social change and scientific advances.

The exhibition has had great reviews from The Observer and The Telegraph so don’t miss out on seeing it. Here’s a quick peek at the items from the Library’s Americas collections on display – if you want to find out more and see some remarkable sculptures do make time for a visit to Leeds.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (BL shelfmark: 012629.de.20.)

This science fiction novella by H. G. Wells is generally credited with popularising the concept of time travel by using a device to travel forward or backward through time. Indeed, the term itself, ‘time machine’, was coined by Wells and is now commonly used to refer to such a vehicle. This edition of The Time Machine was printed in New York in 1895 by the American book-publishing house Henry Holt and Company.

This first American edition, first issue, preceded the British edition and you’ll see the author’s name is misspelled as H. S. Wells on the title page and on the Authors Note as ‘H.S.W.’ – something that was later corrected in the British edition. Unable to let the error slide, a past reader ever in search of correctness has at some point noted in pencil the correction of ‘H. G. Wells’ on the title page under the misprint, initialled simply by the letter ‘K’. As well as the misspelling of Wells’s name being corrected for the English edition, according to science-fiction editor Mike Ashley, this American edition is a shorter version than the English but was published two weeks earlier and is regarded today as particularly collectable[1]. It will certainly be interesting to see this item on display in the Henry Moore Institute Galleries as just one example illustrating anxieties about rapid social change and developments in science that were occurring during the Victorian era.

Front cover of first American edition, first issue, of The Time Machine (012629.de.20.) showing original publisher's tan cloth cover
Front cover of first American edition, first issue, of The Time Machine (012629.de.20.) showing original publisher's tan cloth cover
Title page with H. S. Wells typo and pencil correction, initialled with a ‘K’
Title page with H. S. Wells typo and pencil correction, initialled with a ‘K’
Illustration from The Time Machine showing depiction of a sculpture of a white sphinx
Illustration from The Time Machine showing depiction of a sculpture of a white sphinx

The Vampire. A poem ... Written for a picture by Philip Burne-Jones exhibited at the New Gallery in London, 1897. [With a reproduction of the picture.] by Rudyard Kipling (BL shelfmark: Cup.402.a.30.)

Also on display from the British Library Americas collections is The Vampire by Rudyard Kipling, printed by Woodward & Lothrop of Washington DC in 1898. Whilst doing some digging in the archives for approving this outward loan, I discovered the item was acquired by the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum Library in the spring of 1961. Purchased from a second-hand bookstore based in New York for the handsome price of £5 it was bought along with a scarce pamphlet on Rudyard Kipling entitled American Oats (BL shelfmark: Cup.503.l.26.). The Vampire was catalogued by the British Museum Library team swiftly as is shown by the red Library stamp dated 15 May 1961.

Kipling wrote the poem to gather publicity for what was then considered a mildly pornographic painting by his cousin, the artist Philip Burne-Jones, entitled ‘The Vampire’ (1897) – the piece would become Burne-Jones’s most famous work. The painting depicts a woman leaning over an unconscious man and was believed to have been modelled by the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell – with whom Burne-Jones had been romantically linked. This painting is an example of how, despite Victorian ideals of virginity and chastity circulating at the time, male artists responded to and reinforced an increasingly sexualised representation of the female body in art, reflecting fears regarding the changing role of women. Indeed, Kipling’s poem echoes this notion also.

The Vampire: A Poem (Cup.402.a.30.) by Rudyard Kipling showing the painting of the same name by Philip Burne-Jones
The Vampire: A Poem (Cup.402.a.30.) by Rudyard Kipling showing the painting of the same name by Philip Burne-Jones
‘We called her the woman who did not care, But the fool he called her his lady fair…’: Opening page of Kipling’s The Vampire
‘We called her the woman who did not care, But the fool he called her his lady fair…’: Opening page of Kipling’s The Vampire

Alongside items from British Library collections, visitors to The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture will be able to see artworks from the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Collection Trust and Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries and pieces created by artists sculpting during the Victorian period, as well as more contemporary spectacles from the likes of Sanford Biggers and Maud Sulter. The exhibition runs until 26 February 2023 and is free to visit. Find out more and plan your visit via the Henry Moore Institute website.

Blog by Rachael, Curator for North American Published Collections Post-1850

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[1] Out of this world: Science fiction but not as you know it by Mike Ashley, page 49 (London: British Library, 2011), BL shelfmark: YK.2011.b.8873

09 January 2023

On my desk: Night Fall in the Ti-Tree by Violet Teague and Geraldine Rede

The Americas and Oceania team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Lucy Rowland, the curator for Oceania Published Collections Post-1850. 

Front cover of the book, Night Fall in the Ti-Tree, with cover illustration of landscape and trees
Night Fall in the Ti-Tree by Violet Teague and Geraldine Rede, Melbourne/London, 1906 (11649.h.6.)

What is the item? 

Night Fall in the Ti-Tree by Violet Teague and Geraldine Rede, an artists' book printed in Melbourne, Australia in 1906 (11649.h.6.). 

Image showing the title page of the book
The title page of Night Fall in the Ti-Tree (1906)

Why is it on your desk? 

This may come as a surprise to many people, but curators don't always know the full extent of the collections they look after! Yes, you can familiarise yourself with notable items by reading the lists, reports, and blog posts compiled by previous colleagues, or through the outputs of research into the collection. And you can learn plenty about the history of the collection through articles in the Electronic British Library Journal (eBLJ), but what you can’t do is to walk around a discrete section of the Library marked ‘The Oceania Collection’. The printed books and serials in this collection, as with many others, are not shelved together but are instead spread out over different levels of the basements at St Pancras and a range of storage buildings at the Boston Spa site in Yorkshire. Where they are stored is usually determined by a variety of factors including their arrival date, format, size, value, usage, and condition. Which means there are times when, just like Readers, we stumble on treasures completely by chance. Exactly like this one. Whilst reading a rare book vendor’s catalogue, I saw a listing for Night Fall in the Ti-Tree and wondered whether the Library had a copy. Excitingly we hold the 1906 printing (the original 1905 edition is extremely rare), so I called it up to my desk to have a look.  

Book open to show double-page colour illustration of frogs in a pond
An example of the double-page illustrations in the book

Why is it interesting? 

Night Fall in the Ti-Tree (1905) is considered to be the first Australian artists' book and is the earliest known example of colour relief printing in the country. This hand-bound book of colour woodblock prints with letterpress text was produced by the artists, Violet Teague and Geraldine Rede, at Teague’s home in Melbourne. The story is a cautionary tale about a family of rabbits in the Australian bush, with the illustrations leading from one page to the next in imitation of the Japanese children's crepe books of the late 1800s. The book itself is a remarkable tribute to the Japanese printmaking techniques Teague was introduced to during her time as an art student in Europe and the UK, and is a very early example of Japanese-style coloured woodcut illustrations in Australia. Night Fall in the Ti-Tree was exhibited in both the Victorian Artists Society Exhibition and the Federal Art Exhibition in 1905 and went on to collect an award in the 1907 First Australian Exhibition of Women's Work. In 1906, it was picked up by English publisher Elkin Mathews for a second edition, that held by the British Library, which included a revised title page, a green ribbon binding, and a custom-made box. What makes this book even more interesting is that this charming item came to the Library via legal deposit and, due to the restrictive collecting practices at the time, if the publisher had not deposited the book back in 1906, it is very unlikely that Night Fall in the Ti-Tree would be on my desk right now. Remember you just need a free Reader Pass to gain access to this and many more beautiful items in the Library’s collections.

Book open to show a blue ownership stamp at the end of the book
The blue stamp here indicates that the book was acquired through legal deposit

23 November 2022

Black Theatre Makers: Una Marson

The British Library has digitised and made available online the only known copy of Una Marson’s pioneering play ‘At What a Price’ (1932).

Una Maud Marson was born in Jamaica in 1905. Throughout her lifetime she would live and work in the Caribbean, the UK and the USA. An editor, poet, playwright, activist, writer and BBC producer, Marson had a versatile and prolific career. The phenomenal breadth and range of Una Marson’s creative and critical outputs are yet to be fully appreciated, but there has been a recent renewed interest in the contributions she made to the cultural landscape of the British Empire and North America. Una Marson was the subject of a BBC production, Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice, which brought to life her incredible career and creations. Many of those creations can be found here, in the British Library, including her poetry collections. However, some of her works are a little harder to find.

A young woman wearing a check dress standing and reading the West Indian Radio Newspaper.
Fig. 1: Una Maud Victoria Marson (1905–1965) by unknown photographer BBC Picture Archives, public domain.

Through a recent project at the British Library, the Eccles Centre for American Studies has been supporting the research of Professor Kate Dossett and her project ‘Black Cultural Archives & the Making of Black Histories’. Part of this project involved examining the Lord Chamberlain’s Play’s (LCP) collection for plays produced in Britain written by Black playwrights. The LCP’s are the largest collection of manuscripts in the British Library. The collection consists of plays collected by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain from the years 1824 to 1968. They were collected because the censorship laws which existed at the time specified that plays had to be approved for a licence before a performance. This collection therefore provides an illuminating record of drama performed in the UK up to 1968. The research project has utilised this collection to find and promote the, often hidden, work of Black theatre makers in the early twentieth century.

One of the plays within the collection is Una Marson’s, ‘At What a Price’. Marson first wrote this play whilst living in Jamaica where it staged in 1932. The play was so successful that she used the profits to travel to London, England, where it was staged before British audiences. In London she got involved in anti-racist activism and became secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, which fought for racial equality in the UK. The league and its founder, Harold Moody, sponsored Marson’s London production of her play in 1933. Yet, despite its international popularity no copy of the play’s script is known to have survived beyond the one kept in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection.

The typescript of the play At What a Price; the ink is blue.
Fig. 2: Add MS 66878 D, f.1. of ‘At What a Price’, by Una Marson, now available on BL Digitised Manuscripts.

The play follows Ruth Maitland, a young Jamaican woman who moves from the countryside to Kingston, Jamaica, to work as a stenographer where she is pursued by a white Englishman. The play examines women’s agency in love and work, as well as issues of interracial relations and sexual harassment. The unique play script that Una Marson and her production team sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office has now been digitised in its entirety and has been made accessible through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. Researchers can now view this play and the related reader’s report from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which outlines the department’s response in terms of whether the play was suitable for licensing. These images are available to view here

With the digitisation of this play and related Lord Chamberlain’s Office correspondence, we hope to preserve and widen access to Una Marson’s many and varied cultural outputs. With the digitisation of this play, and others created by black theatre makers, researchers and audiences can discover ways in which black playwrights across the British Empire and Americas were frequently creating new cultural narratives and were at the forefront of movements for change that were an integral part of the British theatrical landscape in the early 20th century.

Jessica Gregory, Project Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Digitisation funded by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.


Further Reading:
Una Marson | The British Library (bl.uk)
The British Library MS Viewer (bl.uk)
Black Theatre and the Archive: Making Women Visible, 1900-1950 - Digital scholarship blog

14 November 2022

On my desk – On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories from Church Street Press

My thanks go to Alan Stein for granting permission to use images of his artwork in this blog

The Americas team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of the curators for the Library’s North American Published Collections Post-1850.

What is the item?

On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories with wood engravings by Alan Stein and introduction by Tom Smart (RF.2022.b.35) – a fine press book from 2018 printed by The Church Street Press, based in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.

Why is it on your desk?

While standard Canadian monographs are processed by our teams in Boston Spa, the more delicate fine press items are invoiced, stamped, catalogued and stored at our London site in St Pancras.

On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories is on my desk because it's a new acquisition which needed to be stamped before passing onto the Americas Cataloguer who makes the item available and, very importantly, findable in the British Library catalogue.

I always love visiting the stamping room; seeing the team delicately place a handstamp on an item means it’s one step closer to being made available to Readers. The stamping team make sure all new acquisitions display a British Library stamp in a way that clearly shows a mark of ownership but which is discreet enough to not invade or obscure the content on the item’s pages. A steady hand is needed, particularly where artists’ books, fine press and other visually appealing items are concerned, materials you might see displayed in exhibitions for example.

As you’ll notice, this book displays a small British Library (BL) stamp and crown (unlike the larger round stamps used on standard monographs) in red ink, indicating this has been a purchase – rather than a donation (green) or arrived via Legal Deposit (blue).

Photographs of British Library stamps
Photographs of British Library stamps

Why is it interesting?

For me this item is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, having lived in Canada for a short time in my youth, I always find it a bit of a treat to look through books which focus on the unique landscapes found there.

Front cover of On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories with wood engravings by Alan Stein and introduction by Tom Smart (RF.2022.b.35), on my desk
Front cover of On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories with wood engravings by Alan Stein and introduction by Tom Smart (RF.2022.b.35), on my desk

Painter and a printmaker Alan Stein established Church Street Press in 1998; through his private press, he hand prints limited edition books which feature his own illustrations in wood engravings, like the ones here, or stone lithography[1]. Alan states that much of his work ‘has been influenced by summers spent on Georgian Bay’[2], and this book, as the title implies, epitomises that. Alan’s archives are held at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Georgian Bay – a large bay of Lake Huron – is located entirely within the borders of Ontario. As Tom Smart (art historian and curator) explains in his introduction, the book comprises a number of authors whose ‘prose poems, fictional narratives, autobiographical episodes and…invented passages from historical records’[3] examine the influence the Bay has had on their lives and works. I find it fascinating how the same natural spectacle has had such deep connections with so many authors and artists, many more beyond the pages of this book I’m sure, and how that influence manifests itself so differently from person to person; inspiring them to write on topics from climate change to culinary encounters.

One contribution that stood out for me when reading this item is Manido-gaming by Waubgeshig Rice. An eight-year-old Anishinaabeg boy fishes on the side of his lake, his grandmother beside him, the boy asking the elder about the Anishinaabeg presence that has been at the lake before his lifetime, and before hers. Through their exchange, the lake becomes a kind of metaphor for the Anishinaabeg experience: ‘It gives us all life. It’s sacred. And it’s your home, my boy’ his grandmother tells him. But looking at the town of recreational homes across the bay, reminders of displacement are ever-present: the young boy observes that ‘[u]nder the wind-swept evergreens of its shoreline, Georgian Bay’s flowing contradictions whirled.’ The title of this story, Manido-gaming, refers to the name by which the innumerable Anishinaabeg generations who have lived on or near the Bay’s shores, know the body of water: “Manidoo gaming,” or “spirit lake”[4].

Wood engraving by Alan Stein illustrating Manido-gaming by Waubgeshig Rice; a boy’s fishing line creates ripples in the water
Wood engraving by Alan Stein illustrating Manido-gaming by Waubgeshig Rice; a boy’s fishing line creates ripples in the water

As well as being of potential research interest to those studying Canadian and Indigenous authors and Canadian landscapes in literature, I should also mention the beauty of this book physically. The mottled watery effect cover invites the reader to dive into the pages.

Blue hues on the book’s cover
Blue hues on the book’s cover

Stein’s prints not only interpret the words as image, but also ‘trace a personal iconography testifying to his own deep connection to the land and water and to the histories of the place’[5]. These comprise 14 wood engravings including one stunning hand-coloured in blue, green, yellow and red showing a more tempestuous scene printed on Gampi Torinoko[6]. Alan kindly gave me some insight into the inspiration for this frontispiece image: this being a tale Alan was told by his friend, Canadian poet and diplomat, Douglas Valentine LePan, about the dream of a local native Ojibway guide by the name Peter Pemajuan. The rough, rocky-coloured pages add a real tangible element to reading the book will no doubt appeal to researchers interested in paper- and book-making techniques, engraving, printing and binding. 

Hand-coloured wood engraving on the book’s frontispiece
Hand-coloured wood engraving on the book’s frontispiece

Remember you just need a free Reader Pass to gain access to this and hundreds more fine press items in the Library’s collections. Find out more about the titles available using our collections guide and the bibliographic guide from the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

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[1] Lithography being a ‘flat-surface printmaking process in which a design is drawn onto a flat stone, or prepared metal plate, usually zinc or aluminium, and affixed by means of a chemical reaction’. Definition provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for more details see https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/collection-areas/drawings-and-prints/materials-and-techniques/printmaking/lithograph

[2] https://www.alanstein.art/

[3] From the book’s introduction by Tom Smart

[4] ‘Ancestral Waters’ by Waubgeshig Rice, an excerpt from Locations Of Grief: An Emotional Geography: http://hamiltonreviewofbooks.com/blog/2020/5/15/ancestral-waters

[5] From the book’s introduction by Tom Smart

[6] ‘Gampi Torinoko is a strong, crisp sheet that is translucent, with almost no visible fibres. Gampi is a bush found in the mountainous, warm areas of Japan’. Definition provided by Legion Paper, for more details see https://legionpaper.com/gampi-torinoko

05 October 2022

Delicate Materials - Imaginative Texts

Dr. Tatiani Rapatzikou is Associate Professor in the Department of American Literature and Culture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and was a 2020 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

My visit to the British Library in April and August 2022 was fully dedicated to the exploration of diverse primary and secondary sources that fall under the theme of book design, materiality, and storytelling in the context of print and digital American literary practice.

With the Library having in its holdings an array of uniquely made books by contemporary US-based print makers, I felt that I had only scraped the tip of the iceberg. 

While searching for my own project, I came across and I was tempted to explore a number of paper-made gems that fueled my curiosity and whetted my appetite for this area of American literary, as well as publishing, experience. The first example I’d like to share is the Loujon Press 1966 volume titled Order and Chaos Chez Reichel by Henry Miller (see Fig. 1) that I had been reading about but had never seen.

A colourful book slip-case stands upright, alongside a colourful opened book showing a portrait of a man on the left and a blue and pink illustration on the right.
Fig. 1: This Loujon Press publication of the Order and Chaos volume comes with a slipcase made out of flowery-patterned and colored paper. On the verso cover page is Hans Reichel’s photograph, while on the recto cover page Reichel’s painting “Homme dans La Lune” is reproduced on the dust jacket.  Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.

Made out of a range of materials such as coloured paper, cork and tissue-lace paper, and coming in a decorated cardboard slipcase, this is a unique codex creation. This special volume contains, in addition to Miller’s own text, an introduction contributed by Lawrence Durrell, one of his close friends, written in red ink on light blue and beige-coloured paper. In the opening paragraph of the introduction, Durrell writes: “This little book is, if my memory serves me right, only one of several which Miller completed around this time (1937-38) and gave to his friends as personal gifts” (7). This particular book creation was dedicated to Miller’s painter friend, Hans Reichel, whom he met during his Paris days in the late 1930s. Building on Miller’s initially handwritten book-letter to Reichel on printer’s dummies, Jon and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb, the founders of the New Orleans-based Loujon Press, published Miller’s Order and Chaos in six limited editions, each one resorting to different materials and bindings.

The specific book mentioned here serves as a memento of a special friendship. Ιt is the tactile and visual as well as colour quality of the materials used (paper, cork, tissue, ink) that transfer to the readers Miller’s diverse thoughts and feelings for his painter friend.

The second example, I’d like to point at is the limited edition of a broadside poem project (see Fig. 2), which started in 1982 with Alastair Reed and continued in 1984 with Dana Gioia, aiming to bring together a diverse range of poems by American poets residing in fourteen different US states. Amidst the poets who participated in this special endeavor were: May Swenson, W.S. Merwin, Jay Parini, Judith Hemschemeyer, Amy Clampitt and others. This project was completed in collaboration with James Trissel, who was the designer and printer of the letterpress and book arts studio known as The Press at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A collection of hand-printed poems and images are displayed on a table top.
Fig. 2: Four of the uniquely crafted broadside poems and the booklet containing information about the project, all of them gathered together into a big black portfolio box as well as carefully wrapped in thin white paper. The specific box is number 57 out of the limited edition of 150 copies. Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Colorado: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.

In the booklet accompanying the broadside poem creations, Gioia writes in her “Introduction”: “Printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, a poetry broadside is the most intense and unified genre of printing. […] While a book may have hundreds of pages to create its effect, a broadside has only one forceful gesture to satisfy simultaneously the requirements of both literature and design.” While in “The Printer’s Comment,” contained in the same booklet, Trissel notes: “These twenty four broadsides […] represent the opportunity to deal with poetry in an expansive range of typographic situations” by resorting to special paper materials and an array of printing techniques. He also points out that, “Unlike the book, the broadside tries within a single plane to strike a resonance between the poetic text and its visual circumstance.” These two comments offer an insight into the crucial role materials, typographic design and printing can play in the delivery not only of an aesthetic effect but also of a multilayered and synthesizing experience.

It was thanks to the Eccles Centre's US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings, which is available both on the Centre's website and in the British Library's Shared Research Repository, that I was able to systematize and expand my research as well as broaden my knowledge about American specialist presses and their print-based projects.

What is certain is that materials enhance the experience of writing, since they strive not merely for a conceptual, but also a bodily and even gestural engagement with the texts composed and the narratives brought forward. Each one of the examples presented here sheds light on a different way of printing and manifestation of creativity. These kinds of material creations both bring to our attention an alternative artistic and literary activity that values craftsmanship and collaboration between the print-maker and the writer or the poet, while also personalizing the overall experience and establishing a meaningful connection with the readers on the basis of the materials and printing method chosen.

In a reality governed by mass production and commercialization, material design and book-making invite us to reevaluate literary practice. This has become even more pertinent since the turn of the 21st century due to the ubiquity of digital technologies. It is not accidental that in the context of current scholarship on American literary production there is a resurgence of interest in digitally-assisted book design and materials, with “bookishness” being the term that is now used in order to mark this kind of turn. Jessica Pressman interprets bookishness as a “creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifact” (1), which increases in intensity as our every day actions also demand an increased engagement with digital technologies.

Considering this observation in tandem with the examples shared in this short blog, one can realise that materials, even though overlooked at times, play a decisive role in enhancing the literary experience by multiplying the opportunities readers have for imaginative exploration and immersion into the story told.

Works Cited

Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.

Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. British Library pressmark: YC.2022.a.2100.

Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Col.: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.

 

03 October 2022

On my desk: Double Persephone by Margaret Atwood

The Americas and Oceania team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of our curators for North American Published Collections Post-1850.

What is the item?

Double Persephone by Canadian author Margaret Atwood – which is a self-published poetry collection written in 1961.

Why is it on your desk?

Our team were recently tasked to update some British Library webpages related to the collection areas we are responsible for. Jobs like this always make for a great opportunity to dive into the collections and gain a better understanding of our holdings. Alongside lesser-known authors, I was looking for particularly interesting or unexpected titles by popular Canadian authors which might help give Readers approaching our collections an idea of the sheer breadth of what’s available at the British Library. It was a real delight when I discovered we held a copy of Margaret Atwood's rare first book, the poetry collection Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.)

Photograph of the front cover of Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.) showing the cover Atwood designed
Front cover of Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.) showing the cover Atwood designed

Why is it interesting?

Margaret Atwood would have only been around 21/22 years old when she self-published (meaning, ‘made public’) the chapbook, Double Persephone. The collection would see her enter and win a poetry competition for students at the University of Toronto, awarding her the E. J. Pratt Medal. I wonder if the selection committee reading those poems and deciding on Atwood as the winner knew the gem they were holding in their hands at the time, or what lay ahead for the young author?

Her follow-up poetry collection published three years later would win the Governor General's Award (The Circle Game, of which the British Library holds the fourth printing at X.950/8654.). As we now know, Atwood would go onto publish in excess of 100 works, from poetry collections to short fiction, novels, graphic novels, television scripts, works of non-fiction, and children’s books. To think this unassuming-looking little collection of seven poems was the start of that, I think is quite amazing.

The small, private press, Hawkshead Press of Kitchener and Toronto, in Atwood’s home province of Ontario, published Double Persephone. In order to afford to self-publish the collection, student Atwood was hands-on in the design and publishing process; she handset the book herself with a flat bed press, designed the cover with linoblocks, and only made 220 copies[1]. The copies were sold for 50 cents apiece[2].

Photo of the full cover illustration showing a light and dark shoot, one with its eyes open and the other with them closed
The full cover illustration showing a light and dark shoot, one with its eyes open and the other with them closed

In a talk Atwood delivered in 2011 (which is available to watch online – see link below in footnotes), she joked at wishing she’d made and kept more of the publication – on the market today, the item can fetch some considerable amounts. The Library’s copy has a red British Museum Library stamp with the date 15th December 1961, so whoever was responsible for purchasing the item some 60 years ago acted quickly indeed, securing a copy for the Library in the same year the item was published, and at what is now considered a bargain price no doubt!

Double Persephone is available to view in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room in St Pancras, London. Anyone with one of our FREE Reader Passes can order and consult the item, as well as the thousands more collection items available for your research, inspiration and enjoyment held at the British Library. 

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[1] TOC 2011: Margaret Atwood, "The Publishing Pie: An Author's View" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6iMBf6Ddjk#t=784s

[2] Rare book library celebrates Canada’s small presses by Nick Davies (published 3rd July 2013) https://www.mhpbooks.com/rare-book-library-celebrates-canadas-small-presses/

17 June 2022

The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection: An Introduction

This new series will shine a light on the British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection.

The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection occupies a unique and quite intriguing place in its Canadian holdings. As well as books and periodicals, it includes maps, sheet music, insurance plans, photographs, and city and area directories, and its comprehensive nature means it offers a vital window into Canadian life and culture between 1895 and 1923. Yet, why does the Library have this Collection? And how can researchers make the most of it?

In this introductory blog, we will answer the first question; subsequent blogs will then illuminate different aspects of the holdings. However, we cannot begin the series without acknowledging the invaluable contribution of Patrick B. O’Neill – Canadian theatre historian and bibliographer extraordinaire.

In the 1970s, O’Neill began work on a research project to illuminate the full corpus of Canadian drama. Quite quickly, he ran into all sorts of obstacles. Yet he was nothing if not tenacious. In 1979, his quest for printed copies of playscripts published in Canada brought him to the British Library and here his conversations with curators – and their conversations with long-retired colleagues – led to the “re-discovery” of the Canadian Copyright Collection in its entirety. Several years later, O’Neill – then professor at Mount Saint Vincent University – returned to the Library on sabbatical to document the collection and it is thanks to his painstaking work, and that of several Dalhousie University colleagues, that it is so accessible today.

In a wonderfully clear and informative article, O’Neill recounts that the genesis of the Copyright Collection lay in an 1895 amendment to the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875.1 Up until 1895, obtaining copyright under Canadian law had involved meeting two conditions. First, the literary, scientific or artistic work had to be published and printed or reprinted in Canada. Second, two copies of the work – be it a book, map, chart, musical composition, photograph, print, cut or engraving – had to be deposited at the Office of the Minister of Agriculture. The 1875 Act instructed the Minister to deposit one copy of the work in the Library of Parliament and to retain the other copy in the Copyright Office.

Map of a town, mainly in black ink, sectioned into separate squares for each property, some are coloured in yellow or pink, depending on the material used in their construction.
Fire insurance plan for Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1910. Part of the British Library's Canadian Copyright Collection. British Library shelfmark: Maps.146.b.48.(25)

In 1895, Section Ten of this Act was amended to require that three copies be sent to this Minister, and this third copy was to be forwarded to the Library of the British Museum. Thankfully, the Department of Agriculture appears to have been extraordinarily diligent in ensuring that these third copies reached the UK. Indeed, O’Neill notes that the "Canadian Copyright Lists" (that were found in the office of that retired member of staff and later used by O’Neill to document the collection) indicated nearly 100% receipt of the material copyrighted in Canada between 1895 and 1923. And the Department’s diligence would prove even more significant in light of subsequent events at the other two repositories.

In 1916, the Library of Parliament suffered its first of two disastrous fires, with the second one occurring in 1953. In both cases, water damage caused more destruction than the fires themselves and although its copyright collection was not totally destroyed, it was seriously depleted.

The Copyright Office Collection fared even worse. Having drawn a blank in finding any trace of this collection himself, O’Neill resorted to writing to his then Member of Parliament, the Hon. Robert Stanfield, to find out what had happened. Stanfield’s response arrived within 24 hours, but was far from encouraging. It appears that in 1937 the Copyright Office was due to move premises. Given that the new offices lacked enough space for its collection, advice was sought on how to proceed. The Committee of the Privy Council’s assessment was that few of the "several thousands of volumes of books, catalogues, periodical pamphlets, sheet music, maps" had any value. An Order-in-Council (whose signatories included then Prime Minister Mackenzie-King) therefore ordered that the material be offered for selection to the Secretary of State Library; anything remaining after that was to be disposed of by the Copyright Library. In total, the former chose 155 books of prominent Canadian statesmen and some 60 volumes of Canadian fiction. The remaining 50,000+ items in this copyright collection seem to have been destroyed.

Given these events, it is not surprising that the British Library now holds the most complete record of Canadian printing and publishing – in French and English, and in all its manifestations – for the period between 1895 and 1923. The reason for this particular cut-off date was that on 1 January 1924, the Canadian copyright Act of 1921 came into force and it no longer required items to be deposited in repositories in Canada or elsewhere. It should be noted that this was later amended by a 1931 bill that required publishers to send two copies of all books published in Canada to the Library of Parliament, thereby forming the basis of a Canadian national library.

Next time, we will focus on the sheet music published in Canada during this time, and in subsequent blogs we will explore maps, city and directories, insurance plans (more fascinating than one might initially imagine!) and photographs…

Notes

1. Patrick B. O'Neill, From Theatre History to Canadiana: The Canadian Deposit Collection in the British Library. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1986

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