This is a guest post Catalina Gómez, Reference Librarian and Curator of the PALABRA Archive in the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division (LACE).
It all started in the Library’s recording studio in 1943. Then Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, who was a prominent American poet, asked Francisco Aguilera, who was serving as the Hispanic Reading Room’s Specialist in Hispanic Culture, to record a Spanish translation of a poem titled “Conquistador”. Under the leadership of this poet, the Library was going through a sort of literary Renaissance as magnetic tape recording technology was gaining traction, so the Library launched one of its first audio archives focused on poetry and literature read aloud. MacLeish believed that libraries and librarians should play an essential role in preserving national and international culture, and he put a spotlight on poetry as a cultural necessity. Widely attended literary readings and lectures that took place in the Thomas Jefferson Building’s Coolidge Auditorium were recorded, and for the first time, the Library began to invite poets and authors to record intimate readings in the studio.
The Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature began to grow. Today this collection comprises more than 2,000 audio recordings, including the voices of figures like, William Carlos Williams, James Baldwin, Rita Dove, Czeslaw Milosz, Kurt Vonnegut, and many of the U.S. Poet Laureates and Consultants in Poetry that have served in this position throughout the years.
During this same period scholar and philanthropist Archer Huntington generously donated funds to the Library of Congress to establish the Hispanic Reading Room and the position of Chair in Poetry. The majestic Hispanic Reading Room opened its doors in 1939 and began to amass and curate a vast and comprehensive collection pertaining to Spain, Portugal, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the regions of the world historically influenced by Luso-Hispanic heritage. In the spring of 1943, while recording McLeish’s poetry in the recording lab in Spanish, Aguilera became inspired to begin a similar collection to the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature focused on works from Spain and Latin America. In November of that same year, he invited the Venezuelan poet and politician Andrés Eloy Blanco to record his poems in the studio, and the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, now referred to as the PALABRA Archive, was born.
In subsequent years, Nobel Laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez, Spanish poet Pedro Salinas, and Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, another Nobel Prize winner (the first Latin American woman to receive the award) added their voices to the collection. In 1958, Jorge Luis Borges read from his poems. Between 1958 and 1961, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Aguilera obtained financial assistance to conduct travel and record writers in Latin America. This travel permitted him to record 70 writers in Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay in 1958; 49 writers in Mexico, Panama, and Guatemala in 1960; and 45 writers in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela in 1961. With time, other offsite recordings were possible through the cooperation of U.S. public and cultural affairs officers at posts abroad and Library of Congress overseas centers such as the Rio de Janeiro Office.
Aguilera dedicated most of his career to this collection and he felt, as he pointed out in the foreword of a guide to the archive published in 1974, that “one of the primary considerations in developing this archive was the potentially rich benefits it could provide as a research and teaching tool. No matter how well written a work of prose or poetry may be, the printed word lacks the intonations and emphasis of the spoken word, which provides a totally new dimension of interpretation and meaning.” Today, 80 years later, this is exactly what this collection has managed to do. The PALABRA Archive has offered scholars and literary enthusiasts a window into the oral, the embodied, and emotional aspect of poetry and literature and to that unique experience of listening to the poet and the author’s voice reading from their works.
The collection was recently rebranded to the PALABRA Archive. It has fully transitioned to the digital age by a concerted effort of Library of Congress staff to digitize all of the 600+ tape reels, move to born-digital recording technologies, and to begin making recordings accessible digitally through the Library’s website. To date, PALABRA comprises nearly 850 recordings representing 34 countries and in multiple languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, English, Catalan, Galician, Basque, French, Dutch, and indigenous languages like Quechua, Maya, Nahuatl, Aymara, and Zapotec. It contains recordings featuring some of the most prominent literary voices of the Luso-Hispanic world, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Elena Poniatowska, Isabel Allende, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and Julio Cortázar, as well as Nobel Laureates Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Octavio Paz, and Mario Vargas Llosa. It continues to be a vibrant project and curators continue to record contemporary literary figures and build this important and unique archive — a cultural treasure for Luso-Hispanic nations and the world.
Georgette Dorn, who took over Francisco Aguilera as the collection’s Curator in the late 1960s and worked on the project for almost four decades while also serving as the Chief of the Hispanic Division from the 1990s until her retirement in 2018, offered some reflections on the importance of the PALABRA Archive in an interview that was captured in our recording lab as she was about to retire. She expressed how there really is nothing like listening to the living voice of writers who have left such a vast cultural legacy, many of which are no longer with us. She recorded more than 400 writers in the same recording cabin where Mistral and Neruda sat to read all those years ago.
To access the PALABRA Archive, visit the PALABRA Archive Research Guide, and to listen to audios from the collection, consult the PALABRA Archive Online Feature. To date, around half of the collection is available for online streaming, and every year a batch of 50 audios is added to the site).
- Rawson E. The Library of Congress Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, 1941–1961, and, Famous Birds, a collection of poems [dissertation on the Internet]. Los Angeles (CA): University of Southern California; 2009. [cited 2021 Feb 1].
- Aguilera F. The Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape: A Descriptive Guide. Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1974.