(The following is a story written by Lindsey Hobbs of the Library’s Preservation Directorate for the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.)
Pulp-fiction authors created some of the most enduring characters of any literary genre including Tarzan, detective Sam Spade, and the sword-wielding Zorro.
The magazines that illustrated their exploits, unfortunately, haven’t fared as well. In fact, they never were built to last – the pulps were printed on cheap, wood-pulp paper (hence the name “pulp fiction),” which quickly became brittle and acidic.
Technicians in the Preservation Directorate, however, are working to give new life to the lustrous, eye-catching covers in the Library of Congress’s sprawling collection of pulp-fiction magazines. The Serial and Government Publications Division holds roughly 14,000 issues from more than 300 titles published in the United States between the 1920s and 1950s.
“American popular culture is an ever-expanding scholarly field, and the pulp magazines were a publication type that was popularized in America,” said Georgia Higley, head of the Newspaper Section in the Serials Division. “Anyone studying magazine history considers the covers important primary sources.”
The Library transferred most of the pulp serials to microfilm years ago because of the rapidly deteriorating wood-pulp paper. It was immediately apparent, however, that the color limitations of microfilm diminished the vibrant graphics.
“Since even the best microfilming efforts do not adequately reproduce illustrative material, especially color images, the pulp magazine cover collection preserves an aspect of the original that would otherwise be lost to researchers here at LC,” Higley said.
As a result, the Collections Conservation Section is conserving the original covers, and the Preservation Reformatting Division oversaw the creation of preservation facsimiles of much of the remaining text.
Pulp-fiction serials rose to popularity primarily in the first half of the 20th century, as new technology permitted cheap, mass production and a more literate working class sought new sources of entertainment.
Not known as purveyors of good taste, the pulps covered everything from romance and adventure to westerns and detective stories to horror and science fiction.
The racier versions, known as “spicy” pulps, most often featured a scantily clad damsel in distress on the cover. Although the spicy pulps enjoyed wide popularity in their day, none occupy the Library’s shelves – they were deemed unsuitable for collection at the time.
The striking cover art, which was at its most whimsical on the sci-fi and fantasy pulps, was a key factor in marketing and even story development.
Often, artists created a cover that would lure readers at newsstands, and writers then would develop stories around the illustrated theme.
Some artists made careers working exclusively for pulp magazines – Margaret Brundage created dozens of covers for “Weird Tales,” widely considered the greatest of the horror and fantasy pulps.
In addition to the glossy covers, pulp magazines also are notable for the many now-famous authors who got their start writing stories for as little as a third of a penny per word – Ray Bradbury, Dashiell Hammett, H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler. Even a young L. Ron Hubbard became a star pulp writer before publishing his pre-Scientology treatise “Dianetics” in the pulp magazine “Astounding.”
Conspicuously absent from the list are any widely recognized female authors. Women pulp writers often used pseudonyms or disguised their first names by only using their initials.
Mary Elizabeth Counselman, for example, wrote stories for “Weird Tales,” and Dorothy McIlwraith served as editor of both “Weird Tales” and “Short Stories” for more than three decades. Leigh Brackett wrote science fiction as well as hard-boiled detective stories and went on to write novels and screenplays, including the script for George Lucas’ “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Since a large number of the serials still are in copyright, digitization is not yet an option.
For now, Collections Conservation technicians are performing many tedious hours of paper repair and rusty staple removal, as well as creating a custom protective enclosure for each cover. Once the project is completed, CCS will have conserved more than 600 individual covers, which will return to the vault of the Serials Division in a condition suitable for handling by researchers.
The pulp-fiction era came to an end in the 1950s with the rise of the paperback novel and television, but the magazines continue to serve as a unique resource of pop-culture history.
The conservation work will allow researchers a more authentic and, likely, a more enjoyable experience.
Said Higley: “We’ll be able to offer researchers the chance to re-create the experience people had reading them.”