the poetry archive - nice but a bit mixed up 12.09.2005, 11:40 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Last week U.K. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and recording producer Richard Carrington rolled out The Poetry Archive, a free (sort of) web library that aims to be "the world's premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their work" -- "to help make poetry accessible, relevant and enjoyable to a wide audience." The archive naturally focuses on British poets, but offers a significant selection of english-language writers from the U.S. and the British Commonwealth countries. Seamus Heaney is serving as president of the archive.
For each poet, a few streamable mp3s are available, including some rare historic recordings dating back to the earliest days of sound capture, from Robert Browning to Langston Hughes. The archive also curates a modest collection of children's poetry, and invites teachers to use these and other recordings in the classroom, also providing tips for contacting poets so schools, booksellers and community organizations (again, this is focused on Great Britain) can arrange readings and workshops. While some of this advice seems useful, but it reads more like a public relations/ecudation services page on a publisher's website. Is this a public archive or a poets' guild?
The Poetry Archive is a nice resource as both historic repository and contemporary showcase, but the mission seems a bit muddled. They say they're an archive, but it feels more like a CD store.
Throughout, the archive seems an odd mix of public service and professional leverage for contemporary poets. That's all well and good, but it could stand a bit more of the former. Beyond the free audio offerings (which are quite skimpy), CDs are available for purchase that include a much larger selection of recordings. The archive is non-profit, and they seem to be counting in significant part on these sales to maintain operations. Still, I would add more free audio, and focus on selling individual recordings and playlists as downloads -- the iTunes model. Having streaming teasers and for-sale CDs as the only distribution models seems wrong-headed, and a bit disingenuous if they are to call themselves an archive. It would also be smart to sell subscriptions to the entire archive, with institutional rates for schools. Podcasting would also be a good idea -- a poem a day to take with you on your iPod, weaving poetry into daily life.
There's a growing demand on the web for the spoken word, from audiobooks, podcasts, to performed poetry. The archive would probably do a lot better if they made more of their collection free, and at the same time provided a greater variety of ways to purchase recordings.
K.G. Schneider on December 9, 2005 11:25 PM:
Er, and this is different from the sales pitches for in-copyright books in Google Book Search because..?
ben vershbow on December 10, 2005 10:38 AM:
You're right, it's a similar pitch. But doesn't this get to the heart of the question of privatization? More and more of these services calling themselves libraries and archives but they feel more like marketing programs. When I heard about the poetry archive, I was hoping for something more like UbuWeb.
I guess I'm hung up on the idea of libraries being public and free, but that's by no means a given unless governments and public institutions step up and start creating these resources themselves. Maybe people are so jaded with these institutions that they're willing to let more dynamic, customer-oriented services take the lead.