Five Questions with Digital Reference Specialist Peter Armenti

Peter Armenti of the Digital Reference Section

Peter Armenti of the Digital Reference Section

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’d like to introduce you to Peter Armenti of the Digital Reference Section. You may have seen some of Peter’s work in the Library of Congress Blog, “From the Catbird Seat,” where he highlights poetry resources from the Library’s collections.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

I’m the poetry and literature specialist for the Library’s Digital Reference Section (DRS), a group of ten reference librarians whose focus is on helping Library users identify, understand, and access materials available across the entire spectrum of the Library’s print and online collections. We field more than 15,000 questions each year through the Library’s Ask a Librarian service, develop topical guides to the Library’s online resources , and lead a variety of on site, online, and videoconference presentations for researchers and educators interested in learning more about the Library’s online collections.

I also work closely with the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, which is the home of the U.S. poet laureate. I contribute to From the Catbird Seat, its poetry blog, and answer most of the questions submitted through its Ask a Librarian form. While I receive literature questions of all kinds, there are a few types I receive on a weekly, if not daily, basis. For instance, many of the questions come from students seeking assistance locating literary criticism for a research project, people trying to find a poem or novel they read years ago but whose title and author they’ve forgotten; and people trying to find poems they submitted to a poetry contest and had published (more on this below). Most of the online guides I’ve created are intended to help people answer these frequently asked questions.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

One of my favorite items comes from our George Washington Papers. It’s a love poem written by Washington when he a teenager, and if you look at the first letters of each line they begin to spell out the name of the young lady by whose “bright sparkling eyes” he was “undone”: Frances Alexander. Washington never finished the acrostic poem, perhaps because he lost interest in Ms. Alexender (or she lost interest in him). Every time I’m tempted to view Washington’s life and achievements through a mythologizing lens, I simply read this poem to remind myself that he was a living, breathing person just like the rest of us—and like most of us wrote some embarrassing love poetry during his adolescence! I always try to highlight this item during presentations I give to teachers and other educators as an example of how primary sources can be used to humanize historical figures.

Share a time when an item from the collections spurred your curiosity.

When I first began working at the Library in 2002, I responded to a question from someone trying to find a poem she’d submitted to a poetry contest several years ago while in high school. She knew the title of the anthology in which her poem was published, but when I checked our copy I discovered that her poem was nowhere to be found. She was understandably frustrated—she was certain the poem appeared in the volume—and I was mystified. Why wasn’t the poem included? I was also fascinated with the book’s physical dimensions and content: it was a huge, door-stopper of a volume, with onion-thin pages that boasted upwards of ten poems of highly varying quality per page. I’d never seen anything like it.

After talking with David Kresh, who at the time was the Library’s poetry specialist, and receiving several similar questions from people unable to find their poems despite knowing the titles and ISBNs of the books in which they were supposed to appear, I decided to research the matter more fully. I soon discovered an entire world of amateur poetry contests and vanity press poetry publishers, some of which, as part of their standard practices, print different poems in each copy of an anthology they publish. Middle school and high school students are among the groups most likely to submit their poems to these contests, which are all now found online.

To help people better understand the practices of amateur poetry publishers and how to locate poems submitted to these publishers, I created an amateur poetry anthology Web guide. Ever since, I’ve found that more and more people have begun asking the Library for help locating their poems, and I now answer hundreds of these inquiries each year.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.

I receive a number of questions from high school students in Texas participating in University Interscholastic League (UIL) poetry and prose competitions. In order to compete in some UIL events students must provide documentation proving that an author was born after a certain year (e.g., 1960) and submit additional proof, for the poetry competition, that the work being used is a poem and not a piece of prose. Often, the poets whose works students choose for these competitions are not widely known and there is no “official” source of information providing their birth dates. Fortunately I’m usually able to track down an author’s contact information through a social networking site such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, and then suggest that the students (or his or her teacher) contact the poet directly with their questions. During the past few years I’ve heard from several excited high school students who received warm responses from the poets they contacted. They reported that the poets were glad to provide the requested information and flattered that a student would take such an interest in their poetry. I’m absolutely thrilled every time I hear that from a student  who successfully got in touch with a poet –these types of early positive encounters are how lifelong readers, writers, and thinkers are created.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with?

The online poetry and literature resources I regularly use cut across most of the Library’s Web site and collections. Our Teachers Page and some of our Web guides do a great job of compiling many of these and providing historical and literary context for them, but there are countless items wonderful for use in the classroom that can be found only through deep searching of our site—something many teachers may lack the time to do. I encourage you to contact me or another librarian if you need help locating appropriate materials and resources for use in the classroom. We can suggest search strategies that you might not have considered, identify hidden gems that you might want to use, and help save some of your limited, precious time. Please take advantage of us!

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