Friday, October 31, 2008

In Search of the Bad Poetry File at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Earlier this week, "Poetry & Popular Culture" received a tip from Stephen Headley—Manager of the Magazines & Newspapers Department at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County—who said that a "bad poetry file" existed somewhere in the depths of that library's collection. Headley put me in touch with Bruce Sherwood, a reference librarian and 30-year veteran of the library, who confirmed that said archive does in fact exist but under the name of the "Auxiliary Poetry File," known as APF for short.

Sometimes, Sherwood told me, those with somewhat less appreciation for the cultural importance of popular poetry than "Poetry & Popular Culture" has, called the APF the "Awful Poetry File." I asked Sherwood if said negative elements had been purged from the library, but he didn't comment. Instead, he sent me this official description of the collection, which consists of an amazing 55 boxes of index cards:

INDEXES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

APF: Auxiliary Poetry File (ca. 1900-1950)

A unique, home-grown index comprised of fifty-five boxes of yellowed index cards with author/title citations to poems culled from selected magazines, newspapers and grade school readers in the early part of the twentieth century. Presumably intended to augment Granger's Index to Poetry, this covers lesser poets or, "bards not sublime," published in non-literary periodicals such as Life and Stars and Stripes and includes many full-text poems from local newspapers -- hand cut and pasted by librarians on three-by-five cards.

Although limited in time and scope, this is an irreplaceable resource because there is no known index to newspaper and textbook verse. Selection is heavy on World War I-era patriotic verse. The APF is especially treasured by those of an earlier generation who wish to recall poems they once memorized from their McGuffey readers.

Affectionately referred to by staff as the "Awful Poetry File," perhaps because most of the poems are "awfully" hard to locate and a few are just plain "awful," the APF has been somewhat eclipsed in purpose, if not coverage, by the World Wide Web.


Sherwood then went on to gloss this description for me even further:

"Although the file has been largely supplanted by the Internet, it is also no doubt true that a large percentage of the entries will not be found elsewhere. It is arranged in a Granger's Index style, with entries for authors, titles, subjects, and first lines in one alphabet. Not all of the poems are 'bad,' nor do all of the 3" x 5" cards consist of pasted clippings from newspapers and magazines. Some entries are just locational notes (e.g., 'Wharton, E. -- Hunting song, Literary Digest, Vol 38, p. 816'), and some are cryptic, such as the title listing for 'A Hymn of Hate,' which is attributed to Dorothy Parker and shown as occurring in five nonsequential issues of Life magazine in the early 1920s.

"During my tenure in Literature and Languages and its predecessors (1980-2007), it was used mainly as a last resort in the years before World Wide Web searching became commonplace. That is, after following up all hunches and tediously checking the many volumes of Granger's, a meticulous search required a run through the APF. At that point the exhausted librarian could confidently tell the patron that he or she had searched EVERYWHERE.

"Before Google, the APF was a significant (if incomplete) source for ephemeral verse. In public libraries, poetry texts are frequently requested by the elderly, who are trying to remember a poem learned in the single-digit years. Then there are many who want the 'correct' text of a half-remembered poem they may have seen on a greeting card or wall plaque. If they could remember the first three words of the title or first line correctly, then the APF could sometimes help them."

I can't speak for the readers of "Poetry & Popular Culture," Bruce, but I will go to sleep happier tonight for knowing the APF exists. And I will hope that some affluent reader of this blog comes up with a cool fortune to help the library digitize & make searchable this amazing resource.

1 comment:

Meredith said...

How expensive would it be to get the cards scanned? There's got to be a grant for such a thing. It's hard to imagine small 20thC newspapers being digitized and widely available any time soon -- this index would indeed be a boon.