The following guest post was written by Mark Manivong, digital library specialist in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
On December 31, 2022, the Library of Congress’ Rare Book and Special Collections Division launched the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Audio Archive, which consists of 420 recordings from the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. Founded in 1966 in New York City’s East Village, the Poetry Project has served as a place where poetry can be studied, performed, and experienced. After its founding, the Poetry Project quickly instituted programming that included weekly readings, workshops, lectures, memorials, and the Project’s annual New Year’s Day marathon readings. Many of these series and programs continue to this day, making the Poetry Project the oldest independent literary center in the United States.
Paul Blackburn, one of the founders, started the practice of recording the events and, as a result, the Library of Congress has a continuous 55-year audio and video record of the Poetry Project’s activities, as well as one of the largest post-World War II collections of recorded poetry in existence. In total, there are approximately 4,000 hours of recordings on a variety of media devices. The earliest recordings were captured on reel-to-reel magnetic tapes, followed by audiocassettes, DAT tapes, and VHS tapes.
The results are splendid. Library users may now listen to a Wednesday night reading in the early 2000s by Bernadette Mayer and John Ashbery, drawing from their books Another Smashed Pinecone and Your Name Here. Or a reading of “Heathens” by Amiri Baraka in 1994 on the eve of his 60th birthday, during which he asks, “Why do people think their poetry isn’t as powerful as businessmen?”. Or a 2002 reading by Ammiel Alcalay and Cecilia Vicuña to hear Alcalay reading from his book-length poem “From the Warring Factions” and Vicuña weaving between English and Spanish and singing the song her mother sang while sewing.
The journey from acquisition to digitization of this collection has been fruitful but complex. Shortly after the Rare Book and Special Collections Division acquired the collection in 2007, we put forth a proposal to migrate the recordings from their existing media to digital form for two purposes: to move the recordings to a more stable format and to make them accessible to the public. The stability and longevity of magnetic recordings are good overall, but their life expectancy is frequently estimated to be no more than 30 years. When the opportunity to begin digitizing the tapes became available, we jumped at the chance and started the process. We documented more than 3,000 tapes, prepared manifests with all of the relevant metadata, and initiated a system to safely and securely ship the tapes to a contractor in Philadelphia for digitization and receive them back with the digital files in .wma and .mp4 formats. The original media recordings will be boxed and sent to the Library’s National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia, for long-term storage and preservation. Over the course of two years, we were able to digitize all tapes within the collection, and their content is now safely stored on Library servers, meeting our first goal to preserve the content.
Our second goal of presenting these recordings to the public is more complex due to rights issues. The Poetry Project collected a standardized release form from speakers before their presentations, which we determined allows us to share the content online by streaming the files. We combed through the paper collection and located release forms that match 420 recordings. This first round is heavily represented by readings and events from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. The remainder—those recordings for which we lack release forms—won’t be totally inaccessible, however, as they’ll go into the Library’s digital Stacks system. Stacks allows users to access rights-restricted materials onsite through Library computers. Over the coming months and years, we’ll solicit permissions for the recordings in Stacks, and make additions to our online offerings until everything is available to stream publicly online.
None of this would have been possible without help from colleagues around the Library. Mike Fitzella handled the contract and arranged shipments and deliveries with the contractor; Liz Madden and Timberly Wuester managed the files; Marcus Nappier and Mark Cooper made the recordings accessible via the web; Dave Reser somehow conjured catalog records from a spreadsheet manifest; Christa Maher kept us on track and handled metadata issues; Literary Initiatives staff provided support and guidance based on their experience of digitizing sound recordings. There are many others who have contributed to this effort.
Now, we invite you to explore the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Audio Archive and listen to these treasured recordings.