August 15, 2022

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Tackling Digitization


The nonprofit Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (KVML) in Indianapolis, IN, recently announced that it has received a combined $76,710 via a grant from Ball State University (BSU), Muncie, IN, and partner contributions to tackle five projects for the library. One of them, a digitization project involving Vonnegut manuscripts in Indiana University (IU) Bloomington’s Lilly Library and other collections, aims to make rare archival material more accessible to the general public.

The KVML was launched in January 2011, and thus far has largely functioned as a museum dedicated to the famed author, who died in 2007. The library made headlines this past August when it offered free copies of Vonnegut’s landmark 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five to students of the Republic School District in Missouri, after its school board voted to restrict student access to the novel in school libraries.

Digitizing Vonnegut
The KVML, however, contains practically none of Vonnegut’s personal papers or manuscript materials, which are held in disparate libraries, archives, and private collections. For example, many of Vonnegut’s manuscripts and a great deal of his correspondence—some 5900 items—are currently housed in the archives of IU Bloomington’s Lilly Library, which first obtained the materials in 1999.

One of the five projects to be funded will tackle the digitization of selections from this material, to be displayed at the KVML. “We wanted to create a manageable ‘archive’ for the KVML, so that fans that come to it on a pilgrimage will be rewarded with intimate knowledge and tourists who come out of curiosity will discover the depth of Vonnegut’s character and his work,” said Rai Peterson, an associate professor of English at BSU who has been spearheading the project. Russell Wahlers, an associate professor of marketing at BSU, is another faculty leader on the project.

A digital display of the materials is being pursued instead of a traditional physical archive, Peterson said, because “the KVML as it presently exists does not have the staff, space, or secure storage to handle actual, valuable, or priceless manuscripts itself.”

Twelve BSU student interns will be taking part in the various projects, including English majors, writing and photojournalism students, and some studying business administration, marketing, and public relations.

Some of these interns will negotiate permissions with the copyright holders of the materials—in the case of the IU materials, the Vonnegut family—to digitize and display them at the KVML, said Peterson. Students will also be trained in how to handle and photograph archival materials, which could help when dealing with private collections, of which there are several in the Indianapolis area. “[W]e will depend on the kindness and expertise of librarians wherever Vonnegut materials are held to assist us in locating, evaluating, and digitizing materials in their holdings,” Peterson said.

The project has set aside $3000 for permissions, but the main focus of the project will be locating the materials scattered in many locations, and deciding what is most desirable and relevant to make accessible. When possible, website permissions will be negotiated as well. “[E]ven though the Vonnegut Library provides a very focused purpose for collecting, there are still a lot of curatorial decisions that go into creating the focus of an archive,” Peterson said.

BSU is also providing each student with an iPad to assist in project research, Peterson said. They will be preloaded with ebook versions of Vonnegut’s novels, short stories, and poetry.

The Indiana Historical Society (IHS), which, like IU, is among the partners providing funding for the project, has agreed to provide digital images of various Vonnegut-related items in its collection, including photos and documents, and supply the files to the KVML without charge. Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis, and the objects in the IHS collection include a 1945 invitation to Vonnegut’s first marriage ceremony, and a research paper listing articles Vonnegut wrote for his high-school newspaper, among others.

Vonnegut hits the road
Materials will also be available in a traveling exhibit currently in development, which will allow the materials to be seen by people who can’t travel to the KVML itself, which will replicate some of the exhibits and video displays in the KVML at local public libraries and schools, among other places. “The KVML has been invited to send such as traveling museum to China and Germany, so after we pilot the traveling museum around the state of Indiana, it will most likely travel overseas,” Peterson said.

Other projects to be funded include a film production team, which will find and edit archival film of Vonnegut for display, as well as work will project partner WFYI, the local public television station, to create an oral history of Vonnegut through interviews with his family and friends; a design team that will create new products for the KVML gift shop; and a marketing plan team, consisting of students and project partners to formulate a plan to help make KVML a self-sustaining institution. All the projects aim to be completed and piloted during the term of the grant, Peterson said, which spans from January to July 2012.

Funding and support for the projects consists of a $33,404 Provost Initiative Immersive Learning Grant from BSU, and a combined $43,306 from community partners including the aforementioned IU, IHS, and WFYI; Seven Stories Press, one of Vonnegut’s publishers; the Indianapolis Museum of Art; and Indianapolis-based firms such as marketing companies Floyd & Stanich and Hamilton Exhibits, production company Creative Street Media Group, and the Eye on Art gallery, as well as the KVML itself.

[LJ interviewed Vonnegut in 1973; see also Vonnegut’s “I Love You, Madame Librarian,” which he wrote for the magazine In These Times in 2004.]

David Rapp About David Rapp

Associate editor David Rapp previously covered technology for Library Journal.


  1. Great opportunity for the academy to join with local businesses, museums, galleries and libraries to improve access to Vonnegut’s writing and ideas. Love the innovative learning. Karla