Bright Young Librarians: Katherine Litwin

Courtesy of Katherine Litwin

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Katherine Litwin, library director at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago.

Could you start by introducing our readers to the Poetry Foundation and its library?

The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, is an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to celebrate poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience. The Poetry Foundation’s home is in Chicago. In 2011 we moved into a building which houses our office space, as well as public spaces: a poetry library with over 30,000 items, an exhibition gallery, and a performance space where we present poetry readings and events.

We are a special library that is open to the public, and the only library devoted to poetry that is publicly accessible in the Midwest. Our library collection grew out of the working collection of Poetry, and contains many rare works, inscribed editions, and artists books. We also have a children’s collection of over 3,000 poetry titles for young people.  Our collection is non circulating, so we operate as a reading room. In addition to providing access to our collections, the library creates participatory programming for visitors of all ages. We work to invite engagement with our collections by creating opportunities for exploring, reading, writing, and discussing.

What is your role at the Poetry Foundation library?

I am the Library Director. My duties are to curate, oversee and care for the collection, manage the space, and work with our team to develop programming. I also work on curating and organizing exhibitions.

How did you get started in special collections?

During my MLIS at McGill University, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a course in Rare Books. I did my final project on the poet William Blake, which was glorious material to work with. After my MLIS I worked first in public libraries, and then with another special library in Chicago, Forefront, that is focused on philanthropy and nonprofits, before coming to the Poetry Foundation.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

The one that comes to mind is a typescript by the poet and photographer Jun Fujita. The typescript was donated to the Poetry Foundation, and was part of a vast collection of materials that I went through when assembling our collection and preparing it to be used by the public. Researching the typescript, I became fascinated by Fujita’s life, and this led my colleague Fred Sasaki and I on a quest to learn more about him. We eventually mounted two exhibitions focused on his life and work, one at the Foundation and one at the Newberry Library. We are currently working on bringing an exhibition about him to Japan, so this typescript has really led me on an entire journey.

Favorite poem?

Picking one would be impossible! But here are a handful that I love and return to often: Psalm by Paul CelanManifesto, or Ars Poetica #2 by Krista FranklinMoth by Atsuro Riley, and How to Triumph Like a Girl by Ada Limón.

What do you personally collect?

Besides books (of course!), I love to collect vintage fashion, records, rocks, perfume, and spices.  I am always dreaming of some future time where I have the space to store all of the clothes I would like to keep, but my closet space is limited, so I do a lot of trading.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I’ve worked in storefront theater on and off for many years, doing all the jobs one can do at different times: acting, directing, writing, sound design, painting the sets at 2 am, etc. I love the communal aspect of art making that is theater making. When I’m not in a library or a theater, I love seeing live music and hanging out with my husband and daughter.

What excites you about libraries at special institutions like the Poetry Foundation?

A library is one of my favorite places to be. Being surrounded by books, what could be better? One thing that is wonderful about having such a specialized collection is the opportunity to go deep within a subject area. This allows us to introduce visitors to works they wouldn’t encounter anywhere else. It’s also very cool to be able to share titles with visitors that they may have heard of, but never had the chance to see or handle. We get to preserve and care for titles that are often inaccessible elsewhere. By caring for these works and making them available to visitors, we are demonstrating that they are valued.

Thoughts on the future of special libraries in general?

I think we will see special libraries working to increase their public programming as a core part of their mission. Really looking to develop programs that will activate their collections through interactive programming. We’ll also see libraries working together to create new ways of surfacing digital content. A great example of this in Chicago is the work of Chicago Collections Consortium.

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?

We are lucky to have a strong collection of works by the poetry publisher Broadside Press. Broadside Press was founded in the 1960s by Dudley Randall, who in addition to being an exceptional poet, was also an editor, publisher, and librarian. Broadside was critical to the Black Arts Movement and published works by Audre Lorde, Ethridge Knight, and many other poets. Some of the gems in our collection include Riot by Gwendolyn Brooks and a first edition of Poem Counterpoem, a collaboration between Randall and Margaret Danner. Danner was the first African-American assistant editor of Poetry, and subject of a recent special feature in the magazine. A few years ago, the librarian Leonard Kniffel, who was a huge poetry collector, particularly of Midwestern presses, donated a significant portion of his collection to our library. This included many additional works by Broadside Press which we didn’t have, so our holdings of Broadside works have continued to grow. We hope to develop an exhibition featuring the collection in the near future.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

We just opened Planetaria by Monica Ong, and I couldn’t be more excited about it! Ong is a visual poet whose work engages motherhood, women in science, and diaspora identity. Her work is highly playful and interactive, and invites us to imagine our own place among the stars. Visitors are encouraged to handle unique poetry objects such as Star Gazer: Planisphere Poetry, which is adjusted based on the date to show different constellations and text. For those who’d like to experience the exhibition who aren’t in Chicago, we’ll be premiering a video about the exhibition exploring Ong’s work.