It’s October (for a few more days), which means that it’s American Archives Month, an initiative established by the Society of American Archivists in 2006. Archives Month shines a light on the important work done by archivists to preserve and make accessible the documentary evidence of our everyday lives.
What is an archive, and how do archives differ from libraries? Libraries generally hold published materials (such as books, magazines/periodicals, and commercially produced recordings) while archives hold unpublished materials (such as personal papers, correspondence, photographs, and original sound recordings). You can think of archives as the raw material of histories, with the work of archivists being to make that raw material last into the future and to facilitate its use.
The Poetry Center’s library collection of contemporary poetry is at the heart of all we do, but we also hold several archival collections that document our history and the poets who have visited us over the past six decades. These collections consist of correspondence, administrative records, scrapbooks, audiovisual recordings, photographs, and more. The author files, which contain documents relating to visits to the Poetry Center by poets and writers over the years, contain many charming exchanges via letter and postcard. Below are images of letters from Donald Hall in 1979 and Carolyn Kizer in 1985 to Lois Shelton, the Poetry Center’s director from 1970 to 1990.
You can find more information about our archival collections here, including links to “finding aids,” documents that provide an overview and guide to the contents of each collection. Most of our archival collections can only be accessed in person, but two are available for your enjoyment from home:
- Voca is our online audiovisual archive of recorded poetry readings. These recordings are unique to the Poetry Center, and they provide a singular window into American poetry and poets across nearly 60 years. Voca presents these recordings online in a digitized format: many were originally recorded on reel-to-reel tapes, audiocassettes, CDs, and DVDs. Those original physical recordings are part of our archival collections as well.
- The LaVerne Harrell Clark Photographic Collection contains several thousand photographic negatives and prints of portraits of poets taken by the Poetry Center’s first director, LaVerne Harrell Clark. More than one thousand of the images have been digitized and can be viewed online. LaVerne had a gift for capturing personality in her portraits. Many of my favorites convey a strong sense of being with the subject, such as the following photograph of Rita Dove during a 1985 visit to the Poetry Center (just two years before she would win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Thomas and Beulah).