01 July 2014

Review of Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers' Libraries: A Handbook

The new book Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers' Libraries: A Handbook, edited by Richard W. Oram and Joseph Nicholson (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014; also available on Amazon) contains well-written and valuable essays on this understudied but worthy subject.

Oram and Nicholson both contribute excellent and introductory pieces that provide an historical overview and curatorial considerations (Oram) and information on the process of cataloging writer's private libraries (Nicholson), replete with jargon that for many will be like a foreign language. Both, however, are easy to read and expert, and complement the other pieces contributed by booksellers, academics, librarians, and writers. A library and/or archive can house myriad items. For the purposes of this book, Oram states that a writer's library is "a set of books or other printed works owed by the author at a particular moment in time" (1-2).

The use of books in a writer's library is expertly illustrated in Amanda Golden's chapter "Anne Sexton's Modern Library." In fact, it made me wish the volume contained more essays in this vein. Golden's scholarship is sound and well-presented. It shows how fascinating working with these books can be, and how illuminating it is to see the annotations and untraditional conversations Sexton had with author's and to consider their influence on her creative writing. Golden shows Sexton's reading reflects "a broader range of texts than critics may have previously assumed she had encountered" (66) and in consuming this chapter, I grew more eager for her forthcoming tome Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets to be published next year by Ashgate. It is bound to be a cornerstone work in this field.

The next essay, by the Curator and Rare Books Librarian at Emory University David Faulds, "A Poet's Library Times Two: The Library of Ted Hughes at Emory University" was a letdown in some ways. It is a fascinating topic, but the absence of a bibliography and very weak notes were a curious and disappointing oversight. As well, there was a fairly heinous error made in discussing books Plath's received for Christmas in 1954 on pages 79-80. In discussing the importance of a book Aurelia Plath gave to her daughter in Christmas 1954, Grimm's Fairy Tales in German, Faulds writes "In August 1954 Plath had attempted suicide by taking a large overdose of sleeping pills and in October was moved from Massachusetts General Hospital to McLean Hospital … This is where she was residing when her mother gave her this book as a Christmas present" (80). Faulds, who works at Emory and should have access to the correct information, gets the year Plath attempted suicide wrong. It was in August 1953. Aurelia Plath did give SP the book in Christmas 1954, which of course makes sense as in the summer of 1954 for this was after her daughter took German in Harvard Summer School and was enrolled in an Intermediate German course at Smith (as well as auditing a second German course) in the Fall of 1954. The gift of a German edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales makes much more sense contextually than to be so careless as to give her daughter a book in the midst of her recovery when, as part of the symptoms of her breakdown, it is reported that she lost some of her reading and writing capabilities.

Even if you have never worked with a writer's library, this book will resonate and take hold of you. It makes you want to seek out and find where the books that belonged to your favorite (dead) writer are now held. Or, if you are on the fence about it, consider what Oram writers in the first chapter: "the sense of direct, even mystical, communion with a deceased creative individual through an item which once belonged to him or her" (13). This is exactly what it is like, in my experience, when I have worked with the books and other archival materials formerly belonging to Sylvia Plath.

Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers' Libraries: A Handbook includes a series of interviews with living writers with large libraries. About half the book is dedicated to a list of writers and the locations which hold their books. It is an indispensable resource guide to writers throughout many centuries.

Overall, Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers' Libraries: A Handbook, edited by Richard W. Oram and Joseph Nicholson, marks a significant publication on a largely ignored but hugely important aspect to archives and special collections. So often the focus of an archive is on the manuscripts, photographs, and other evidences of life. This may be right, but while we take much from written correspondence, it is sometimes the case that a person's library contains hidden conversations with a published author. There is value in this line of study, as this book makes unequivocally clear.

All links accessed 1 July 2014.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.