Jan. 19, 2007
Iowa City Book Sleuth Helped Fill The Shelves Of UI Writers' Workshop Alumni Library
The Iowa Writers' Workshop has been at the heart of American literary life for nearly 70 years, but it wasn't until the late 1980s that the workshop's late director, Frank Conroy, launched a concerted effort to assemble a library of literary works by University of Iowa graduates.
Many alumni had proudly sent copies of their published work back to their alma mater and workshop staff had made purchases when funds were available, so numerous books were already in the workshop's possession, but an effort to actively seek out and collect volumes, even by the program's most illustrious graduates, had never been undertaken.
The endeavor extended beyond the workshop to involve collaborations with the community, including, for example, bookseller Jane Murphy (right, click on image for high resolution photo), co-owner of Murphy-Brookfield Books in Iowa City. Her sleuthing for the last decade has helped to fill the shelves in the Frank Conroy Reading Room of the new UI Glenn Schaeffer Library and Archives.
"We were approached about 10 years ago, as a result of Frank Conroy's decision to actively pursue the idea of an alumni library," says Murphy, who was trained in the antiquarian field at Glenn Books in Kansas City. "Prairie Lights Books had begun providing things as they were published, primarily by their bigger-name people and people who were coming for readings. When we were approached, it was to see if we could provide some of the back-list items, and some of the out-of-print stuff."
In those days, tracking down out-of-print books was haphazard, with a lot of footwork and luck involved. "We were doing a lot of traveling back then, and I would take a list with me of workshop graduates," Murphy explains. "Whenever I would go to a new place I would consult that list and buy from other dealers that way. And of course we always had things walking in the door of the shop. So that was kind of a hit-and-miss proposition for a long time."
Then, several years into the project, came the full impact of the Internet, with its seemingly limitless capacity for data storage and universal access, enabling Murphy to track down books on the computer in the basement office of her home. "About three years ago, we started doing it more systematically," she says. "With the vast improvement in Internet bookselling I was able to do much more effective searching, and search out a lot of material that I didn't know existed from more obscure people, and older things by the folks we did know about.
"There are now wonderful sites online where a person can go and type in what they are looking for, and immediately bibliographic information will pop up about that title from all over the world. The customer can just click and with a credit card order the book right there. It's a perfect application of the Internet."
But even with this revolutionized capacity to search out books, the process of acquisitions was limping along. "At that point we were still constrained by financial considerations," Murphy says. "The workshop didn't have a specific donor or a specific fund to draw on, and it wasn't until this spring, after Glenn Schaeffer came into the picture, that he very generously decided that he would not only contribute to the construction of a lovely structure, but he wanted lovely books to go in it, too.
"So I was able to backtrack and find more literary first-edition material that had been out of the price range of the workshop -- and also some private press material."
As a result, when the Schaeffer Library and Archives was dedicated last fall, the shelves lining the walls of the Frank Conroy reading room were full, and Murphy was introduced at the event to thank her for her efforts.
Helping to fill those shelves turned out not only to be a source of pride and recognition for Murphy, but also a source of personal literary enrichment. "In some ways, we would not be the ideal choice for something like that, because it's not an area we specialize in," she says. "We do have a lot of poetry and fiction, and a lot of poetry and fiction published by workshop people, but our main focus is scholarly out-of-print material.
"So, when we were approached initially I thought, 'Well, OK, I'll do this, and that's ok,' but it turned out that I have enjoyed it a lot. My knowledge of poets and poetry has really expanded. I had no idea how many notable poets have come out of the UI -- so many of the important modern-day poets. Combine that with exploring private presses that I certainly had some knowledge of but had not seen a lot of their work: I was pretty blown away by the book-arts aspect of it, too."
And how much work would remain to be done if the goal was a comprehensive library of Iowa Writers' Workshop books? Murphy is reluctant to even speculate. Alumni number in the thousands -- some prolific, others not; many whose whereabouts are unknown; some who self-published or were published by small regional presses; some who have written under pseudonyms or with names changed by marital status. And, of course, more books are continuously appearing, written by alumni old and new.
The collection at the Schaeffer Library and Archives probably only scratches the surface, but due to the work of Murphy and others, it is already an impressive testimony to the workshop's achievements.
The Writers' Workshop is a graduate program in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
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