The Sealey Challenge: Library of Small Catastrophes

hand with muted nail polish holds LIBRARY OF SMALL CATASTROPHES with its Nick Cave art cover in front of pink Joe Pye Weed and yellow cupplant blooms.
Library of Small Catastrophes

Library of Small Catastrophes demands to be read more than once. Alison Rollins, librarian and poet, interrogates everything from structural racism and sexism (and the ways librarianship, our shared profession, fits into both) to grief and longing and defiance, an elegant poetry that grabs its reader and refuses to let go.

I won’t try to pick a favorite poem from Library of Small Catastrophes: every poem is my favorite poem, from the most difficult and painful to the most entertaining. (What I find most entertaining might not be what you find entertaining, unless you, too, are a public services librarian.) Nor are Rollins’ libraries idealized spaces of books and dust: they are spaces of contention, of the politics of cataloging and of policing, reminders of structural racism, filled with digital divides and floppy disks and computers already obsolete. They are the libraries we know, and strive to improve, and sometimes they are funny, and sometimes they are sad, but I know them every time they skim across the page.

Library of Small Catastrophes is a catalog of facts, data and digital divides and MARC records I know but do not fully understand, drawing from history and art—including from Nick Cave’s Soundsuit, the book’s cover image—refusing to look away from our bleakest histories and our grimmest presents, yet also exploring the joy of facts and of words, set just so. Race and land and womanhood twine together, misogynoir peering out from words and actions and sorrows: Venus Hottentot, medicine (and gynecology, specifically: the Fultz quads, the unspoken violence of gynecological history), racism in education, at Wounded Knee, a cancer running through American history.

Library of Small Catastrophes must surely be read more than once, to be savored and understood. It’s beautiful and sorrowful and grim and yet also joyful, a world we all know—we’re living it now, even if it was published in August of 2019, before any of us had heard of COVID, or knew Breonna Taylor’s name. I know the libraries, and the technology, and the MARC records I don’t quite understand; I know the policing, novels gone missing, pages ripped from bindings—none of which is worth a trip to a cell.

Rollins’ Library of Small Catastrophes is, like a library, much bigger than its physical space, larger than its pages, grander than its words. It is sorrow and joy and defiance, and it demands to be read more than once.

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