A library shelf with hanging lights above it.

The Weird and Wonderful Brautigan Library

If you ask any writer why they write, odds are the answer will be because they have a story to tell and a unique perspective to offer. If you ask an editor why they edit or a publisher why they publish books, the answer will almost always be because they love discovering stories with a unique perspective to offer. It’s not, as is often assumed about publishers, to be “gatekeepers” of which stories are worth reading. The business of publishing is difficult because it is almost entirely based on whether or not a manuscript will appeal to a broad audience; if there isn’t a huge perceived audience, publishers unfortunately have to say no to manuscripts that would otherwise be amazing books all the time.
Where do all those rejected manuscripts go? Do authors bury them in hard drives and recycle bins, never to see the light of publication? For one particular author, this did not seem right. Richard Brautigan, an American author with origins in Washington state, wrote about a library where the only purpose was “to gather pleasantly together the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.” He had a few popular novels in the 60s and 70s, but never saw his vision played out. In 1990, Todd Lockwood was inspired by Brautigan’s 1971 novel, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 and founded the Brautigan Library in Burlington, Vermont. The mission: “Archive and curate unpublished analogue and digital books by unknown, but aspiring, writers.”
The original collection houses a little over three hundred manuscripts from thirty-nine US states and four countries. These are all cataloged by a very unique system called the Mayonnaise System. In this organizational system created specifically for the Brautigan Library, manuscripts are sorted according to fifteen general categories (much like BISAC codes we use for bookstores), the year they were submitted, and the order of acquisition to the category. Some examples of categories include Adventure, Family, Love, War and Peace, Meaning of Life, and All the Rest. As for how the system got its name, in the early days of the original library, category sections were marked by actual mayonnaise jars! The jars were apparently a reference to one of Brautigan’s more popular novels. After a few fell and spewed their contents all over the floor, the practice stopped.
The library had to close in 2005 and store all the manuscripts until 2010 when a partnership between Washington State University and Clark County Historical Museum brought the collection to Vancouver, Washington. Now, there is both the original collection as well as a digital collection. A new category was added to the Mayonnaise System, Digital (DIG), and there have been over one hundred more submissions since 2013. You can visit their website here to see synopses provided by authors and librarians’ comments on the manuscripts.
This library is a beautiful concept because it rejects the notion that all literature needs to be entertainment. Yes, there is importance in the publishing process and most manuscripts go through many changes to become the commercially successful works of art that they are, but this space is also important. A place where the American compulsion to be comparable to everyone else doesn’t exist; creators are free to create without fear of failure. The current curator, John F. Barber says, “The Brautigan Library is not about being published, or even about literature. It’s about people telling their stories in a democratic way. It is a home for grassroots narratives in a digital age.” Clark County Historical Museum is closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, when the county reopens, the Brautigan Library is a short drive away for authors and publishers from the PNW to come and appreciate literature outside of commercial success.