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Descriptions of 10,000+ Brazilian Chapbooks at AFC now Online

José Francisco Borges, at his poetry stand with his larger format block prints on the wall behind him at the 100 Anos de Cordel event, São Paulo, 2001. Photo by MarkCurran. Not to be duplicated without permission.

José Francisco Borges, at his poetry stand with chapbooks on a string above him and his larger format block prints on the wall behind him at the 100 Anos de Cordel event, São Paulo, 2001. Photo by MarkCurran. Not to be duplicated without permission.

This is a guest blog post by Margaret Kruesi, a folklorist and cataloger at the American Folklife Center.

You have a new opportunity to discover 10,000 plus titles in the American Folklife Center’s Literatura de cordel Brazilian chapbook collection (AFC 1970/002)! The Library of Congress holds one of the world’s largest collections of literatura de cordel – Brazilian chapbooks — published from 1930 to date.  The collection was begun in the 1970s by scholar Sol Biderman and continues to grow in the present through the collecting efforts of staff in the The Library of Congress Office, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Catalog records for 9286 of these cordel have just been put in production in the Library’s Online Catalog for discovery by people around the world (hint: search “AFC 1970/002”). At the same time, Library catalogers in the Rio Office are busy creating new catalog records for their more recent cordel selections to add to this fascinating collection of poetic and artistic work.

A Mulher que Foi ao Inferno e Dançou com O Diabo (The Woman Who Went to Hell and Danced with the Devil) by Apolônio Alves Dos Santos, no date (acquired 1982). Woodcut by José Costa Leite. A fantastic tale of a woman who visits Hell and makes a narrow escape. AFC 1970/002:M01987.

A Mulher que Foi ao Inferno e Dançou com O Diabo (The Woman Who Went to Hell and Danced with the Devil), by Apolônio Alves Dos Santos, no date (acquired 1982). Woodcut by José Costa Leite. A fantastic tale of a woman who visits Hell and makes a narrow escape. AFC 1970/002:M01987.

This extensive collection has been little-explored and under-used for understanding grassroots perceptions of Brazilian history, politics, religion, humor, folklore, romance, and popular culture. Literatura de cordel are descended from European chapbook traditions. They are usually made from a single sheet of paper folded into an 8-page or 16-page leaflet (folheto), decorated with a woodcut on the cover (and more recently with photographs, lithographs, collages, and other cover art).  Hung by vendors from a string (cordel) in the marketplace (the source of the name literatura de cordel), the chapbooks  feature poetry commenting on current events, politics, bizarre news stories, lives of the saints and holy or supernatural phenomena, folk heroes and bandits, sex and romance, obituaries and elegies.  Many of these are lyrics intended to be sung to the tune of the reader’s choice. Some are issued as a means of educating people about HIV, safety, vaccines and other health issues.  The publication of chapbooks took hold in the northern and northeastern states of Brazil (Pernambuco, Ceará, Alagoas, Paraíba, Piauí, and Bahia), and they reflect the cultural diversity of these states and comment on issues of poverty, violence, destruction of the rainforest, and everyday concerns.

The Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera, visited the American Folklife Center in September to learn about the poetry and art of literatura de cordel.  You can watch his reactions and discussion of how cordel are tied to a long tradition of poets publishing their own work in chapbooks in this video of his visit.

Up until 2015, the Library’s cordel were cataloged in a database that was accessible onsite only, so the wealth of titles in this collection remained hidden.  Making these bibliographic records available online is important for other libraries worldwide that house collections of cordel.  Due to their ephemeral nature and local production by multiple publisher-poets, description of cordel in a catalog is a challenge, and this project will aid in developing best practices for description and access in library catalogs and databases.

The continuing vitality of this popular literature is reflected in the movement of the genre to online publication and forums. In 2011 the Library hosted a symposium, “Literatura de Cordel: Continuity and Change in Brazilian Popular Literature,” to explore these issues. Since 2012, the Library of Congress has been harvesting and archiving websites and blogs featuring literatura de cordel.  The American Folklife Center also has several audio recordings of performances of cordel poetry and song by cordelistas in the marketplace.  Stop by, online or in person, to discover these chapbooks for yourself!


Academia Brasileira de Literatura de Cordel Brazilian Academy of Literatura de Cordel (in Portuguese)

Brazil Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture (Library of Congress finding aid), compiled by Elizabeth D. Eisenhood, Joseph C. Hickerson, and Therese Langer.

Literatura de Cordel (web resources list).  Library of Congress Overseas Offices, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Literatura de Cordel: Continuity and Change in Brazilian Popular Literature, a symposium at the Library of Congress sponsored by the American Folklife Center, the Hispanic Division and the Rio de Janeiro Office of the Library of Congress, as well as the Embassy of Brazil in Washington, DC, 2011. Webcasts of the presentations are available via links on the Symposium Program page and the site includes two pages of images of the artwork on covers of cordel with descriptions.

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