Contemporary British Collections Placement

by Joe McCarney  

  My research at Goldsmiths is investigating the implications of the internet for contemporary poetry and poetics: as a primarily text-based medium radically shifting the coordinates of communication; as a catalyst for contemporary textual saturation; and, of course, as a digital space where poetry is read, published and disseminated. It was this last theme that became the focus for my summer placement working with the UK Web Archive and the Contemporary British Publications department at the British Library. With the introduction of the Non-Print Legal Deposit (NPLD) regulations in 2013, the Library is now responsible for the collection and preservation of digital publications in the UK - updating the terms of its historic print deposit mandate. Using my own research interests of poetry as a focus, the project set out to answer some preliminary questions regarding the new landscape of digital-only publishing, with the aim of both assisting the library with its newly instated collection responsibilities and augmenting my own research paradigm.

At present, the British Library is only just getting to grips with the world of digital publications. Consequently, one of the key benefits of working at the Library in this context is the freedom over so many aspects of the placement, from the research focus to collection strategies to broader project outputs. As such, I decided that the most effective means for achieving my project objectives would be the curation of a Special Collection of poetry zines and journals for the UK Web Archive. Special Collections are online resources of hand-picked, annotated sites around a particular theme or subject, which are regularly ‘captured’ to preserve their content and publicly accessible via the Web Archive portal – similar to how print collections function, but entirely online. The scope and depth of the research involved allowed me to examine the broader trends, styles and tactics inherent to poetry publishing on the internet, whilst producing a resource of use to everyone from poets and poetry enthusiasts, librarians and legal deposit professionals, to current and future scholars.

Since online journals are zines are only a small part of what makes up the surprisingly diverse landscape of digital-only poetry publishing, I researched a number of other formats and genres concurrent to the work for the Web Archive collection. The most fascinating of these was the emergent genre of ‘electronic literature’, a literary form bound up in the interactive, iterative and aesthetic characteristics of computing itself. Whilst the collection and preservation of e-lit may be some way off due to the technical hurdles involved, I developed a number of academic contacts (having the poet Richard Price as a colleague was an invaluable asset for developing relationships with contemporary poets and academics) and discovered dozens of exciting new authors.

The Library provided a number of opportunities for giving outputs for the project: I gave several presentations about various aspects of the project to both internal and external parties; I contributed blog posts and internal articles about the collection; I also authored a lengthy final report on the results of my research, which has been circulated for internal use. The institutional weight afforded by the Library also ensures that public engagement work – such as blogposts or workshops – gain a high media profile; one blogpost I wrote about the Special Collection was shared on Twitter by a number of prominent individuals and stakeholder organisations, including The Poetry Society, Don Share (editor of Poetry Magazine in the US), and the Cambridge Humanities Review amongst others.

Whilst my official placement period has now ended, my relationship with the Library has only begun; I will be staying in touch with my former colleagues to assist in the development of the collection as time goes on, and to promote its launch with further blogposts when it finally goes ‘live’.