The main entrance to the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center is now open. Van Pelt Library and the Fisher Fine Arts Library are currently open to Penn Card holders, Penn affiliates, and certain visitors. See our Service Alerts for details.

Penn Libraries News

Diversity in the Stacks: Supporting Bibliodiversity in Philadelphia

The Penn Libraries is partnering with independent bookstores in Philadelphia to help us expand our collections of materials representing small presses, local authors, and specialized scholarly and artistic communities.

About a dozen books and pamphlets with colorful covers laid out on a table.

The International Alliance of Independent Publishers defines bibliodiversity as “cultural diversity applied to the world of books. Echoing biodiversity, the critical diversity of products (books, scripts, ebooks, apps, and oral literature) made available to readers. Bibliodiversity is a complex, self-sustaining system of storytelling, writing, publishing, and other kinds of production of oral and written literature. The writers and producers are comparable to the inhabitants of an ecosystem. Bibliodiversity contributes to a thriving life of culture and a healthy eco-social system.”

Ideally, bibliodiversity is expressed at multiple levels. The Penn Libraries’ Diversity in the Stacks series largely focuses on works and collections representing historically underrepresented, marginalized, or overlooked groups in the United States. Works by ethnic, religious, racial, or sexual minorities, for example, contribute to bibliodiversity in the Penn Libraries system and beyond, as do works in languages and from countries largely ignored by the U.S. public. These are examples of diversity in authors and intended audiences.  

Bibliodiversity also requires the existence of diverse publishers and booksellers. A society in which publishing is dominated by a small number of profit-driven conglomerates chasing trends and standardizing popular themes is not welcoming to bibliodiversity, even though minority voices such as those in the Afrofuturism genre might become ”hot” for periods of time. Many budding authors can only find an outlet and creative support from local and specialty publishers.

Likewise, bibliodiversity flourishes when there are multiple points of exchange. For instance, libraries and independent bookstores select and highlight books for different reasons than Amazon or bookstore chains, often focusing on local authors and topics. They also attract different audiences and meet different needs: an independent bookstore or library can serve as a cultural center and a space for likeminded folks with niche interests.

The Penn Libraries, working with new processes, has prioritized purchasing material from local independent bookstores. A goal is to promote bibliodiversity in Philadelphia booksellers. However, these purchases are not a charitable act: the Libraries is not purchasing these books solely to support bookstores. Rather, we are identifying independent bookstores with specialized scholarly, cultural, and curatorial knowledge that promote bibliodiverse perspectives and make materials available that the Libraries would be unlikely to purchase on its own.

Ulises Books

Cover of pamphlet "Clothing Correspondence." Illustration shows a sketch of a human figure wearing a pink, drape-y piece of clothing.
Clothing Correspondence by Bronwen Jones is a reflection of her experiences in Amsterdam during the pandemic and afterwards in art residencies during which she mended clothes in exchanges for conversations.
Cover of book "Genderfail: Anthology of Queer Typography"
Several items supplied by Ulises are pamphlets published by GenderFail, "a publishing and programming initiative that seeks to encourage projects that foster an intersectional queer subjectivity."

Our first experiment in working with local independent bookstores was with Ulises Books, which has two co-founders and co-directors who are members of the Penn community: Kayla Romberger at the Weitzman School of Design and Lauren Downing at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Ulises refers to itself as “a bookshop and project space dedicated to artists’ books and independent art publications.” They “aim to support people who make books and expand the boundaries of what art publishing can be.” It is a cooperative space fostering an artistic and intellectual community as well as a bookstore specializing in books about design from unusual perspectives and in unusual formats, such as pamphlets, zines, and uniquely formatted books. Some of the items we receive from Ulises are only available through personal connections or trips to book fairs made by Ulises staff, while others may be available for the Libraries to purchase but would probably not come to our attention without their expert curation.

In Body Works Liz Barr, who has worked for ICA, Common Press, the Philadelphia BlackStar Film Festival, and Mural Arts Philadelphia, writes about the historicity of makeup and its continued presence in multiple forms of art and popular culture. 
Cover of book "Body Works" by Liz Barr. In the center is a red-tinged photo of a human form.

A Novel Idea

A Novel Idea came to our attention because of their mission: “We believe in shopping small, not just because we’re a small business, but because there are so many talented artisans in the Philadelphia area. One way we shop small is through our dedication to promoting and selling books by local authors and small presses.” They also have a very active events calendar that regularly focuses on authors from the Philadelphia region. By working with this bookseller, we are able to collect and elevate works that major vendors rarely make available for us to purchase while supporting authors in our own community. Preservation of these books also enables future research on local history and cultural trends.

Cover of "The Vampire Gideon's Suicide Hotline" featuring an illustration of a skull wearing a headset.
Among the presses supported by A Novel Idea is Lanternfish Press, based in Philadelphia, which publishes books of speculative fiction and "aims to make books and publication accessible to readers and writers who fall outside the literary mainstream, whether in race, sexuality, gender, situation, or pure individual oddity." 
Green chapbook cover featuring illustrations of two cars.
This chapbook by Philadelphia resident Nick Mehalic is published by Ethel, a twice-yearly limited edition, handmade journal of writing and art and a micro-press specializing in handmade chapbooks.

Future Projects

The labor-intensive nature of collecting from local bookstores in a manner that best supports Penn’s priorities makes it impossible to purchase more than a small percentage of our books from small local sources. However, the Libraries plans to work with more independent publishers and booksellers to support a wider range of bibliodiversity in Philadelphia. For instance, a large collection of chapbooks and poetry collections from the Moonstone Arts Center, based in Center City, will soon be added to our collection. In addition, we hope to have future collaborations with minority-owned bookstores. All of these collaborations will allow current and future generations of scholars to examine the textual material created or promoted by intellectual circles in today’s Philadelphia.

Books at the Libraries from Ulises Books

Books at the Libraries from A Novel Idea



July 19, 2023