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Saving Pulp Fiction

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Photo by Shealah Craighead.

(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.

Nathan Smith of the Collections Conservation Section demonstrates paper repair on the cover of a pulp-fiction magazine. Photo by Shealah Craighead.

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.

This issue of Startling Stories featured works by Philip K. Dick, whose later novels served as the basis for films such as “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall,” and Richard Matheson, whose novel “I am Legend” has been adapted for the screen three times. Serials and Government Publications Division.

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.”

Comments (22)

  1. Thank you very much for sharing this great material with me. I love to read and learn and this is great

    I appreciate it

    Pablo Esparza

  2. For more information on pulp fiction, there is Ron Goulart’s informal survey of the genre: “Cheap Thrills” (1972).

  3. I am glad that these treasures are being preserved. Who doesn’t love Sam Spade and Tarzan. It looks like pulp fiction is the cousin to comic books.

    Kelly Rose

  4. Thank you for your amazing work and respect for storytelling of all kinds. While I regret that digitization does not provide an easy option to preserve the work, I honor the LOC for its respect for copyright and wish others followed your shining example. Congratulations and wishing you every success.

  5. Worthy work being done here to preserve some of the greatest, most enjoyable fiction you’ll ever read. Pulp is back today with new stories being written by myself and many, many others featuring the classic characters in these old, precious magazines and new characters cut from the same cloth. We call it New Pulp and it’s thriving. Also, many publishers are collecting the original tales in quality reprints so if anyone is curious about experiencing this great writing, check out outfits like Airship 27, Pro Se Press, Altus Press… They’ve all got what you’re looking for. Fun times await. This fiction must be preserved!

  6. This is wonderful news! When I was working on my dissertation more than a decade ago, I was dismayed to learn that the LOC had discarded copies of True Story, True Confessions, and other pulp titles. Even the publishers that were still in print didn’t have back copies of their own works. It was assumed that they didn’t have lasting value.

    Thank for your your preservation efforts in this area.

  7. Speaking as someone who actually does research print culture (especially 19th/early 20th century Japan and the US), the claim that “[t]he conservation work will allow researchers a more authentic and, likely, a more enjoyable experience” is at best laughable and at worst, incredibly disconcerting. Because I have said this in numerous venues, I’ll feel free to repeat it here: you CANNOT anticipate how a researcher is likely to use materials stored in a collection. Case in point: a researcher who was able to determine the air quality of medieval Europe solely from the chemical composition of paper in contemporary books. This had nothing to do with the text or visual appearance of the objects and everything to do with maintaining them in an unaltered form. Therefore a bare minimum of intervention (ideally none at all beyond minimizing environmental impact) should be considered best practice, even if that means keeping them in a brittle state. Moreover, given how research into print, both mass market and amateur, has emphasized contextualization of late, it shocks me to think that you rather cheerily believe breaking these objects up and encasing the covers re-creates “the experience people had reading them,” when, in fact, it does anything but. The decision seems to have already been made, but don’t try to pretend that this is even remotely to the benefit of someone such as myself or my colleagues.

  8. I have never read any pulp fictions. They look like they would be neat to read, especially for people who are into fiction! I have seen the movie Tarzan before and it was nice! I would like to read more!!! 🙂

  9. This is an important part of our literary heritage. Authors, such as Louis Lamour, started out in the pulps. These magazines desaerve conservation as a part of our literature.

  10. You wrote: “Since a large number of the serials still are in copyright, digitization is not yet an option.”

    The upcoming wrapup of the Google scanning case may establish a Fair Use for reference libraries (such as LoC, eh?) to scan serials such as this in order to preserve them.

    Rights to many of these are now owned by individuals, who can be approached for permission to scan preservation copies. I’m thinking of Popular’s titles; special magazines such as WEIRD TALES; and others.

    Conde Nast, owner of the Street and Smith copyrights, has an active licensing program, with many issues available as reprints from a third-party publisher. They’re probably currently depositing copyright instances.

    Finally, for heaven’s sake, you’re the LC. You’re the archive of record. II can’t imagine anyone refusing to let you scan your rare items, someone who’d rather see his copyrights become meaningless as the last known copy disintegrates into pulp dust.

  11. It is so good to hear that serious attention is being paid to the preservation of this material. I first began reading “pulp” around 1940, and it was always a great feeling, when I finished my homework, to curl up with one or another of the various genres of the pulps that clogged the newsstand displays.
    Mystery, War, and Sci-fi…reading was an adventure to us, far more exciting than some of what was served up by our 4th and 5th grade teachers!!
    Like the silent era cinema, this form of material was always accessible, and for a dime, no better bargain around. Which never stopped us from eventually graduating to what became the classic literature of the period
    This material is a doorway into the mind of the era, a part of the historical record. It is not a dusty subject for only the historian/researcher…and deserves to be made readily available to the public at large.
    If only the LOC could sell reprints of these and silent films through your bookshop….

  12. Not that I’ve ever seen the movie Pulp Fiction, at least I now understand what the meaning pulp fiction actually means. Thanks for sharing such interesting historical facts like that.

  13. It’s great that these magazines are being preserved. In response to Mr. Thiesen’s comments above, as someone who has worked in preservation, it’s essential that materials like this are reformatted in some way in order for researchers to have access to them at all. As the article points out, these were printed on the lowest quality paper and as a result are far too delicate to be handled by researchers without completely disintegrating. Short of stopping time or storing them in an oxygen-free environment, they’re going to fall apart. Let’s keep a little perspective here — while these are great pop culture resources and have historical importance, we’re not talking about the Magna Carta. There’s certainly no shortage of examples of paper materials from the early twentieth century. In fact, most libraries are swimming in it. I’m glad to see that these are getting some attention and researchers will actually be able to use them.

  14. Ms. Eliot, pulps, for the most part, were trashed; they were made without any consideration for their being kept for an extended period of time. That is actually an argument in favor of keeping them as is, because it’s a rare thing that they survive at all. The point that there are sufficient examples of paper from the 20th century has no bearing, because the example I gave was just that, an example. The point, which flew over your head, is that no one can anticipate how something might be used. Drastic interventions of this kind operate from the assumption that you CAN take for granted not only how the materials could be used but also, and this is the most sinister part, direct any reader as to how they OUGHT to be used. Imagine someone chopped the binding off a 16th century Cicero, photocopied the pages, wrapped the binding in plastic, used that as a sleeve for the photocopies, tossed the text block in the trash, and presented the resulting hybrid as a genuine incunabulum. I imagine most bibliophiles would throw a righteous fit. A fragile pulp from 1936 might not be the Magna Carta, but I can guarantee you more people care about a first printing of an Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard story than yet another merely old copy of De Oratore. Thinking like yours is what created a history of books in which our primary source for Sappho papyri is an Egyptian trash heap.

  15. Pulps and pulp fiction are annually honored at PulpFest, a convention for fans and collectors of pulp magazine and the art and fiction carried by those magazines. PulpFest is held each summer in late July or early August in the city of Columbus, Ohio.

  16. If I understand well, this is just about preserving the coloured “covers” and microfilming the texts…

    From what I read in “Livres en Feu”, a pretty seriously researched source, the notion that acidic paper inevitably completely falls apart is largely a myth created by microfilm companies… This to motivate technophile efforts to “save” material on microfilms, or other medium also susceptible to inevitable decay on their own… Huge purchases of technology then have to be “fed” to justify their expense, the real goal being to save real estate…

    Acidic paper becomes brittle yes, but it typically does NOT fall apart… The test made to determine microfilm transfer for books (in most librairies) is the ridiculously severe “double-fold”: Basically folding it twice to cause breakage: Looking hard to save storage space in other words… As Michael Ward said, nobody is going to argue digital copyright with the LC, so the content could be made safe while the original could be preserved as it is for as long as possible, which is likely far longer than claimed… Preserving covers separately from the the content doesn’t seem like a great idea either… G.

  17. There have been many books published that reproduce pulp covers and pulp cover art, all in color. Many of these books feature the work of a specific artist.

  18. A couple comments on the comments:

    “Acidic paper becomes brittle yes, but it typically does NOT fall apart” As someone who is the archivist of a collection that has a lot of newspapers from the early 20th century (which used the same paper type as pulp magazines), I can state categorically that this is not true. Every time those papers are handled, little bits of them fall of like flakes of dandruff. Papers that were folded originally cannot now be unfolded without them breaking apart. Nicholson Baker did make some good points in Double Fold, but don’t believe everything you read in there. 70% of it is hysterical fear mongering.

    “Thinking like yours is what created a history of books in which our primary source for Sappho papyri is an Egyptian trash heap.” Respectfully, I would argue that the reverse is true here. The reason why over 90% of literature from antiquity is lost to us is because of the unstable nature of papryus. If someone had systematically transferred the information from the papyri onto another medium, that information would have been saved. The LC is doing just that with these pulps, but you are saying they shouldn’t. True, the LC is destroying the original copies to do it, but in one to two centuries, early 20th century pulp magazines are going to turn to dust anyway as surely as ancient papyri did, and without efforts like these the stories in them will become a lost as Aristotle’s Poetics of Comedy.

  19. Thank goodness! LC (and scholars of poplit generally) should be aware of the cloud-sourced and freely accessible FictionMags Index from the 1880s to the 1960s, which indexes contents of story magazines, far more than what LC holds. Some of the entries are summary, but many are very detailed and provide copious cross-referencing. The world has Bill Contento’s and hundreds of volunteers’ efforts to thank for this massive contribution to scholarship.

  20. Thank you for taking the pulps seriously… Many of the great 20th century writers got their start through them… This stuff is historical of the highest degree – it was t.v for the working people, it’s the gateway to our grandparents world. It was a time when both trash and gems in literature intermingled together inside the covers of some delightful and at times, outrageous cover-art, I love them and collect these magazines and they are very fragile! – this truly is a very important part of history which does need saving..! Thanks, again!

  21. Hello. You might be interested to know that my 93-year-old husband, Charles Boeckman, aka Charles Beckman, Jr., wrote pulps beginning in 1945 and made a full time living from them until they bit the dust after the advent of TV. He specialized in suspense and westerns. Very versatile, he switched to the confessions, which paid better than the pulps, and wrote those for 30 years.

    He subsequently wrote novels, short stories for detective magazines, articles, non- fiction books, etc. In the 1980’s we collaborated on 25 Silhouette Romances, which sold over two million copies worldwide. Then we specialized in articles for a while. At one point he decided it was time to retire and just dabbled in writing, eventually producing a novel about a bunch of crazy musicians. Since he had grown up playing in bands and had his own band for decades, he had a wealth of material for such a book.

    Eventually, a couple of years ago, I stumbled onto the pulps fans online, and Charles was inspired to publish two anthologies of some of his old pulp stories. A third one is now in production.

    Then, he decided to write some contemporary novels, which he has done. The first one, PURSUED! has been published. A mystery novel, SNATCHED! is in the hands of Pro Se Productions and should be available soon.

    Finally, he decided to write his autobiography, which is now in progress.

    What makes my husband unique is that, as far as we know, he is the only living writer from the pulp era who is still writing.

    If you care to hear a podcast of him conducted by Tommy Hancock, you can key in “Charles Boeckman podcast” and listen to the first part of what is scheduled to be a two-part interview. Be advised that we were on a cordless telephone using the speaker function, which I didn’t realize didn’t pick up his voice very well, so you’ll need to listen closely. I understand that he’s easier to hear on some mobile devices. We will make different arrangements for the next interview.

    As for the condition of his old pulp magazines, they are fragile. He had them stored for decades in cardboard boxes. Somehow they have not deteriorated into dust. When we handle them, we are VERY careful with them.

  22. Interesting article. I agree that these treasures should be preserved. They are as much about our culture as anything can be. They reveal a side of the contemporary American life that future researchers may find valuable and intriguing. At least, I hope the future populace does. I may have a few comics somewhere left over from my pre-teen days in the sixties. I remember reading Black Hawk, which was one of my favorites, much more than Spiderman or Superman. I love the art from that time. Within the last several years, I have become a fan of the horror fiction from those years, such as Lovecraft and his contemporaries and friends like Clark Ashton Smith. Wonderful stuff that can instill horror without resorting to cheap tactics like gore and shock. I am glad these are being preserved.

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