Why Libraries Should Carry
Literary Magazines

By Jessica Powers

Because I am not a librarian, I never thought about how librarians make decisions about what books and magazines to carry. I’m just frustrated when they don’t have what I want, which may be part of the problem. What do most people want? Evidently, it’s not the same thing that I want; otherwise, according to El Paso Librarian John Sandstrom, I’d probably be able to find it.

The Business of Libraries

Today, says Sandstrom, “Libraries are demand driven. We are no longer providing materials people should read, but rather, we have to provide materials that they will read. As government moves toward more of a business model, where everything has to show a return or be a major service, we have to show that everything we do provides a service to our population. We have to be able to show that what we have is being used.”

The problem then? “Literary magazines in my experience are a very small niche market,” he says. “Most people who are interested in lit magazines subscribe themselves, and there’s not a large demand for them at the local libraries.”

Sandstrom admits that libraries should balance the tightrope of providing what people “will” read and what people “should” read; in reality, however, the demands of keeping budgets from getting cut means they provide less and less of the “should” reading material.

Christopher Harter, who is both a librarian and the editor of a literary magazine called Bathtub Gin, has a slightly different perspective on why librarians fail to carry more subscriptions. “Historically, and it’s the same today, [literary magazines] are notorious in erratic publication schedules.” On top of that, he says, “Many literary magazines die a quick death. A library might subscribe to a magazine and after one or two issues, the magazine goes belly up. Trying to run a smooth operation, libraries don’t want to deal with that. They’re like any business. They like to deal with one distributor rather than ten checks to ten different people. It saves staff time, etc.”

Selling Points: Lit Mags as Cutting Edge Variety and Historical Record

So, why should libraries carry literary magazines at all? And what can literary magazines do to make themselves accessible and appealing to libraries?

For one thing, literary magazines offer what Image: A Journal of Religion and the Arts editor Greg Wolfe likes to call a “team effort.” Literary magazines provide a variety of authors in one book-length publication. “Being able to read a number of authors gives you an opportunity to encounter writers whose books you’ll go on to read, those whom you essentially want to know more about,” he says. “It allows you to find the kind of literary friends we’re always looking for, the writers who will be our life’s companions. It’s a great place to ‘shop’ in a sense because most of these writers are also producing books. A literary journal can be an ideal bridge between the individual and authors and the experience of a major work.”

Also, says Virginia Aulin, editor of the Canadian-based A Room of One’s Own, literary magazines are the first places you’ll see authors who will later become literary giants. “When we look back at who we’ve published over the years, some have become Canada’s best and biggest writers, so you’re seeing them when they’re young and fresh. For example, we published Janet Fitch’s first story, and she went on to write White Oleander, which is now a major Hollywood film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. So when you read Room today, you’re reading some of the writers of the future.”

For that same reason, Christopher Harter (Bathtub Gin) argues that libraries are providing the public not just with contemporary literature but they are also preserving it for future historical use. “You look historically at any of the writers who are in the canon—their work was always initially published in small presses and literary magazines. That’s still true today. But literary magazines often have very small press runs. You need to collect them now so they’re available in the future. In a way [I’m suggesting a] historical value, but it’s also contemporary; you need to start collecting now because in the future it’ll be harder to find.”

“Magazines are the new books,” says Richard Soren, editor of Bagel Digest. “In this wierd, wacky, wireless age of non-stop, high octane, instantaneous decision making and the proliferation of attention spans shorter than a nano-second, people on-the-go are only very selectively willing to make an effort to read books. Instead they look to magazines.”

What Would Carnegie Do?

W. Scott Olsen, the editor of Ascent, argues that the problem may lie not with literary magazines, but with libraries’ concept of themselves. “People now use Barnes and Noble the way they use to treat libraries. They write their term papers there. They read books that they never buy. It’s contemporary, fresh, in the press, relevant to patrons’ lives. The library, as an idea, has become a little bit moss-covered. The books are not quite as fresh, not quite as current, and libraries need to reclaim that. They need to say, ‘We have as much new stuff here [as Barnes and Noble] and it’s free.’ The literary magazine is an inexpensive, dynamic way for libraries to promote their relevance to their communities.”

Stephanie Wilkinson, publisher of Brain, Child, would agree but would also argue that the library’s responsibility is to provide the public with material that isn’t easily accessible to them at the supermarket or Barnes and Noble. “You walk into the library and they have the same things you see on the supermarket shelves. Granted, libraries are there to provide for free what people might not be able to afford. But I think it’s also there to provide those things that add value to our culture—I mean, what else are they there for? You’re helping keep great traditions alive. Why else did Andrew Carnegie found libraries if not to make lots of things available?”

What Lit Mag Lovers Can Do

The challenge, of course, is making these “new books” something that people want to read and that libraries want to carry. In other words, there are two important elements to getting literary magazines into libraries: Make your literary magazine something that people want to read and clear away any obstacles that might be preventing a library from subscribing.

The first part of that is making sure literary magazines are as accessible to readers as possible. “Avoid becoming esoteric,” Greg Wolfe says. “Good writing can certainly be experimental and innovative but it has to respect the reader. Yes, it can be challenging and quirky and mysterious and demanding, but that doesn’t equal inaccessible.” Furthermore, says Virginia Aulin, “In our society today, visual stimulation is important. We put a lot of care into our cover art and we always make sure we include black and white images inside. Art gives you a bit of an edge.” And last, suggest that your loyal readers begin requesting your literary magazine at the local library. “We carry what people ask for,” says librarian John Sandstrom.

The second part of getting libraries to subscribe is simply to make it easier on libraries. Christopher Harter suggests that literary magazines band together and offer libraries a way to carry a “group” of magazines, rather than forcing libraries to order each one separately, which can turn out to be time-consuming. Wilkinson also suggests that literary magazines stop following the academic journal procedure of charging libraries a much higher subscription rate than what they charge individuals. Olsen suggests that individuals in the community could give gift subscriptions to local libraries. “You know how churches will set out a Christmas tree and you pick an ornament and people give the family on that ornament what they need,” he says. “Libraries could do that—they could say, ‘Here are twelve literary magazines we’d like to subscribe to—could you choose one of them?’”

In the final analysis, both libraries and editors need to move closer to the other in order for the two to meet. But much of the onus lies on the editors—to make sure what they offer is desirable for public consumption and to make it easy for libraries to subscribe. Then, perhaps, librarians will remember the importance of the small literary magazine. In the words of writer Tom Montag, from his article “Stalking the Little Magazine” (Serials Librarian, Spring 1977), “Little magazines are essential to contemporary literature; the librarian who ignores them betrays that literature.”

Editors Recommend Some of Their Favorites

Christopher Harter, Editor, Bathtub Gin

Chiron Review

Main Street Rag

Staplegun Press

Arsenic Lobster

W. Scott Olsen, Editor, Ascent

Gettysburg Review

The Kenyon Review

Georgia Review

North Dakota Quarterly

Virginia Aulin, Editor, A Room of One’s Own

(for Canada)


Prairie Fire


Stephanie Wilkinson, Publisher, Brain, Child Magazine

One Story Magazine