A collection designed by
December 2, 2010
The history of print is frequently conceptualized as the history of the printed book, but such a notion inherently excludes all the works that stubbornly exist on the margins of such a category – printed ephemera, magazines and other periodicals, and especially the chapbook, a category of literature that reached the height of its popularity in the 18th century, and persists up to this day with the publication of poetry chapbooks by small presses that coexist alongside the works of mainstream publishers.
This slightly uneasy existence concurrent with mainstream publishing practice is not inherent to the history of the chapbook genre: chapbooks were once among the most popular genres of literature given the very circumstances of their production (cheap and ephemeral) and their reception (popular, not to be treasured by single readers but frequently shared and disseminated on a wide scale). As such, they form an intriguing subset of literature in their own right, but the unique circumstances of chapbooks as material objects pose a special challenge to authoritatively collecting them. Our collection of 18th-century literary chapbooks aims to address such challenges, making specimens of this genre available to curious casual readers as well as scholars. Georgia B. Barnhill states, of collecting chapbooks and other ephemera, that “It is difficult to substantiate large expenses for collections that have no readily definable audience,” and that for such documents “there is no demand from a specific academic audience.” This indefinability of demand can in fact be viewed as a positive argument in favor of collecting chapbooks: entire fields of literary and cultural study deal with marginal material, and arguably the only impediment to scholarly interest in the chapbook genre is the very ephemerality of these documents, which exist in a curious twilight between the provisional and evanescent stature of journalistic writing and the fixed stability of printed books. Our collection conceptualizes and preserves the early chapbook as a genre in itself, and paves the way for increased interest in this genre.
In a university setting, the primary purpose of a special collection such as ours is to support the educational mission of the university, beyond what general collections are able to provide. Our chapbook collection will be helpful to student and faculty researchers, especially those interested in the 18th century, by providing access to original materials. Additionally, class visits to see the material will be encouraged, in hopes to inspire interest and broaden students’ understanding of the time period and other related course topics. Observing the physical qualities of a chapbook from the 1700s can provide context and convey meaning to students, beyond what they would learn from a classroom lecture. In addition to providing research and learning opportunities, we hope that our chapbook collection will enhance university prestige, attract new faculty, and inspire the development of new courses and programs.