Vancouver has a different kind of library — very different. You’ve probably never heard of it. It’s small and contains about 300 volumes bound in black, gray, blue or maroon. It’s a library housing unpublished manuscripts that commercial publishing won’t accept. One might consider this library a literary dead end. Or, more generously, a library merely awaiting patiently for the right reader.
Counter-culture author Richard Brautigan in his 1971 parody novel, “The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966,” conjured up a repository for unpublished manuscripts no one would read. His tale revolves around a hermit librarian who accepts manuscripts 24/7 regardless of their literary worth, even if written in crayon. The librarian considers each an example of “the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.” To prop up the books on the shelves, he uses mayonnaise jars as bookends.
Brautigan sprouted his idea when writers had few publishing options, just commercial or vanity presses. Today internet technology offers many noncommercial outlets — blogs, e-books and self-publishing — that make it easy for even the abstruse or eccentric writer to find a few readers’ eyes.
In 1990, professional photographer Todd Lockwood transformed Brautigan’s fictional library into a physical one in Burlington, Vt., where it operated until 1995. The library opened with a flurry of press articles. Lockwood made one change by making the books available to read. As the number of volumes grew, he made a second by devising a new classification, the Mayonnaise system, which has 13 categories, such as love, family, spirituality, adventure and a catch-all called “everything else.” Its classes are more elastic than the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress systems, and you might find a novel in any category.
Few knew the Tacoma-born Brautigan was a native Washingtonian until John Barber of Washington State University spent two years negotiating with Lockwood and working with the Clark County Historical Museum to bring the library to Vancouver. Once set up in the former Carnegie Library on Main Street, the Vancouver branch officially opened in 2010 with a celebration that included the author’s daughter, Ianthe Brautigan-Swensen, and Lockwood.
In “The Abortion,” no one checks out or reads the manuscripts. The librarian merely collects them. In the 1990s, the library accepted typed submissions, now only digital ones, accessible via a website that thousands visit yearly. Few visit the bound submissions at the old Main Street library. But then, one must travel to them, pick them up and read them.
Why are these quirky manuscripts important? Penning hundreds of manuscript pages, even imperfect ones, is hard. The creator and audience is like a balanced equation: Every act of creation represents someone’s hope. Anything written, even a diary or journal, is put down with the desire that someone, someplace, sometime may read it, closing the writer-reader loop.
Merely scanning these contributions opens one’s mind to how creativity is cathartic, even therapeutic. Writing forces us to understand ourselves and our world better. Whether in pixels or print, every Brautigan Library manuscript awaits an open mind. And each is respectfully granted the copyright protection that makes them equal to any of the bestsellers on the New York Times list.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.