By Nicholas Baumfield

The Northern Poetry Library was established in 1968 by George Stephenson, Director of Mid Northumberland Arts Group, and George Laughton, County Librarian of Northumberland. The aim of the collection was to acquire and make available all contemporary poetry in English published in Great Britain. The collection was to be free to use, on open access and available in the first instance to everyone in the North East. Free direct postal lending was also offered. A catalogue was published with support from the regional arts association Northern Arts. Books were acquired through a library supplier who simply bought everything listed in the bulletins of the British National Bibliography under the contemporary poetry classification.

Magazines and journals were acquired directly. This meant that the collection included a lot of small press material of the 1970s and 1980s that would be missed by any other methods – at the time – but that it also missed publications that had gone out of print by the time they reached the BNB. Contrary to some expectations the collection did not aim to have a special emphasis on poetry written or published in the North. The intention was for it to be a comprehensive national collection. (It could never be edited or ‘weeded’.)

The only other public national collection in England still is the Southbank Poetry Library. The Southbank Library has much that the Northern Poetry Library does not have: reader facilities, poetry in audio-visual formats and not least dedicated professional librarians, but it does not lend its books. The Northern Poetry Library does. For a period of time in the 1990s anyone in the country could be a member and receive their books through the post. The 1990s also benefitted from some dedicated professional support and literature development.

The strengths of the collection are in its small press collections, especially of those writers who have gone on to national renown, its childrens collections, often overlooked, and its anthologies which are attractive to new readers. Its collections of the ’70s and ’80s now represent an important archive for researchers. The magazines of that period – often collaborations with visual artists, sometimes with innovative typography, sometimes political samizdats, usually international in scope – were especially important in this respect but sadly were casualties of the last Morpeth flood as they had been moved to the stacks to make space free in the public area. Although the Northern Poetry Library may now be compromised by this and by the consequences of reduced staffing in the library service, it remains a hugely valuable resource for readers – and an inspiration for those writers who read.

Nicholas Baumfield was Literature and Broadcast Arts Officer (regional arts association) in 1968, and had worked at Morpeth as Special Collections Librarian.

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.Thomas Gray, poet