English and Drama blog

06 October 2016

Capturing poetry across formats: from print to digital to electronic literature.

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National Poetry Day comes during the judging phase of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, an award administered by the British Library and the Wordsworth Trust in association with the TLS and Harvard University’s Centre for Hellenic Studies.  The Awards aim to raise the profile of poetry pamphlets and to recognise the contribution they make to the world of poetry.  For the Library, running the Awards helps to ensure that a substantial number of poetry pamphlets published each year in the UK find their way into the Library’s collections so that they can be kept for readers and researchers now and in the future.  In this sense the Awards are evidence of the Library’s continuing commitment to collect print culture, not just from mainstream publishers, but also from small and independent presses all the way through to self-published pamphlets.  The pamphlets themselves show the enduring appeal of print as a medium for bringing poetry to a wider readership.

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A selection of the pamphlets entered for this year’s Michael Marks Awards. 

It is also interesting to note the variety of sizes and shapes amongst the entries submitted, and whilst the pamphlets encompass a range of poetic forms, there is also diversity in terms of the layout of text on the printed page.

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From prose poems to spreadsheet poetry: a selection of less traditional text layouts in the pamphlets.

Many of these pamphlets are published by small presses dedicated to poetry, but some are self-published or come into being through arts projects undertaken by cultural institutions, councils or community groups.  The Library aims to capture this creative diversity; we encourage anyone publishing a pamphlet to deposit a copy in the Library for the collections, irrespective of whether it has an ISBN or is distributed formally through booksellers.   We have recently been delighted to acquire for our collections all issues to date of ‘Rising’, the niche ('nish') poetry zine produced and distributed by Tim Wells since 1993. 

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Rising poetry zine, edited by Tim Wells.

The Library’s interest in poetry does not begin or end with print.  In Contemporary British Collections we are working to collect poetry in a range of other formats, and we are also investigating the way that poetry publishing, and literature more widely, is changing in the context of digital developments. The most obvious manifestation of the move towards digital publishing is in our collection of mainstream and academic publishing where a substantial number of publishers have now switched from depositing a printed copy of each work they publish to depositing their works in electronic format instead.  This reflects the 2013 change in the law allowing the British Library, and the other five legal deposit libraries, to receive content in electronic format. Where publishers have moved over to depositing works in electronic format, readers coming to the Library’s reading rooms can click straight through from the catalogue to read these works immediately, on screen.  The screenshot below from our catalogue gives an idea of some of  the poetry collections, from Catullus and Yeats to Vikram Seth and Clive James, now being received as e-books rather than as print copies. 

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A screenshot from 'Explore the British Library' showing a sample of poetry collections received as e-books.

The e-books appearing in the catalogue reflect traditional print culture in its digital manifestation, in that these works are digital copies of works conceived of as books and replicating their form.  Digital publishing is not limited to the format of the book, nor limited to presenting only fixed text and images.  The Library has recently hosted a PhD placement student, Joe McCarney, to undertake a study of online-only poetry publishing, from online zines and journals through to e-poetry that exploits the wider potential of digital media in terms of sound, images and visualisation, animations or interactive content.  As part of his project, Joe identified online-only poetry sites to be added to the UK web archive; he described this work in this fascinating post.  Joe also produced a report on the range of formats and forms used by practitioners of e-literature and on existing efforts to archive this type of creative publishing, and his report will help the Library as develops ways to capture and  preserve emerging media formats, so that they will be available for study in future.  Whilst the rapid pace of change of new media presents challenges for the Library, our poetry collections in particular are given a further  dimension through the wide range of poetry recordings included amongst the Arts, Literature and Performance collections of recorded sound, many of which are available to listen to outside the Library.  Recent recordings include short readings by the poets shortlisted for last year's Michael Marks Awards. This year's shortlist will be announced on 19th October, with the final awards evening taking place on  13th December.

by Debbie Cox, Lead Curator, Contemporary British Publishing

 

See also: Poetry Goes Online: Preserving poetry journals and zines for the Web archive

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