Colophon Collection of Moderns
Tales of a Reluctant Curator: Lessons on Copyright
By Joan Gosnell
In the spring of 2009, I was approached by Amy Carver, director of the Southern Methodist University Friends of the SMU Libraries, for help on a project. Joanne Pratt, one of our founding members, asked us to mount an online exhibit of the Colophon Collection of Moderns as collected by the Southern Methodist University Friends of the Library. Joanne wanted us to answer some basic questions about the Colophon Collection of Moderns, "Did the Friends of the Library pick the right authors and the right books?" The exhibit was to be mounted in May 2010. Innocently, I said, "Sure, I'll help."
As we look back forty years, the Colophon Collection was the first major project completed by the Friends of the Library. They chose mostly modern and beat writers because they couldn't afford 17th or 18th century writers. As I looked at the archival record, many of the books, broadsheets, and manuscripts were affordable - $25, some even $5. In fact, the minutes essentially say, "We have $1,000, stretch it as best you can." So they did.
Looking on the web, there are book exhibits here, there and everywhere. How hard could it be to put one up? Amy and I hatched a plan to find a student to help us select the books, scan the covers and mount an exhibit using ContentDM, the library's content management system. Piece of cake, right?
That summer, we hired Andrea Luttrell, a Ph.D. candidate in the SMU English department and she began going through the wonderful collection and culling the most interesting. She selected those items that were small press - often limited to less than 100 items printed - by small iconoclastic printers, most of whom no longer existed. Some of the items she chose were hand-illustrated by the author or their friends. The items were fascinating, quirky, and all were treasures. Summer ended and we had a list of 91 authors and about 110 works.
Then I thought copyright. I spoke with our ContentDM team, who said, "you need permission to publish online!" We had our first conversation with the SMU lawyers, who reiterated, "permissions." So, all we needed were the permissions. We hired a new assistant from the ContentDM team to secure the permissions and perform the scanning. However, we hit a snag. Okay, it wasn't a snag—it was more like a brick wall. The author's copyright protected the text of the book, but not the cover art! The copyright for the cover was held by the publishing company or the artist that created the cover – and we couldn't find the small presses, as most were out of business or had been acquired. And if the book was a translation, there could be as many as three copyright owners to a book.
It was then that I realized that most online exhibits are done with long dead authors or feature works that are far out of copyright. Exhibitions of current works are done by or with the living writer's cooperation.
Copyright is a stern taskmistress. As librarians, archivists, and booklovers, we believe that authors do have the right to protect their work – we believe in copyright. That doesn't mean that we fully understand all the ins and outs of it. This project, however, has made me well aware of the murky depths of copyright law.
In the end, we were able to secure permission to display book covers from 17 copyright holders, which in hindsight is pretty good. These 17 selections from the Colophon Collection of Moderns can be viewed here. Since we could not publish the text of the books, and could only publish 17 covers, the team decided to create a standalone website instead of placing just the 17 covers into a ContentDM digital collection. Because the entire collection is such a rich vein of material and unique with the small press materials, I implore you not just to enjoy this online sampling, but to come to Dallas, step into the DeGolyer Library and visit the 3400 items that is the Colophon Collection of Moderns.
After 40 years did Colophon/Friends of the Libraries make the right choice in authors and did they choose the right publications? I believe the answer is yes. The authors are mostly famous and well-known. The committee on acquisitions did a terrific job on choosing unique items. Could there be more women authors? Yes, yes, yes! Only six women are on the original list of 65 authors of the canon. I do think more women authors could have been on the original list.
I could have only done it with the efforts of these fine people: (in alphabetical order): Cindy Boeke, Amy Carver, Jorge Cruz, Andrea Luttrell, Adrianne Pierce, Joanne Pratt, Tyeson Seale, Ron Sherrell, and Rob Walker. Their talents made this project a success. I thank them for their patience, hard work, and for being of good cheer.