One Dark Day in the Middle of the Night: The Poetry Library Enquiry Service

Lorraine Mariner and Pascal O’Loughlin, Poetry Library


Like all public libraries, a day at the desk of The Poetry Library can throw up an amazing variety of enquiries and encounters. Our users are of all ages, and all backgrounds, so we need to be ready for anything. Usually we are but, of course, there is always that enquiry which will knock you off your feet.

Often our enquirers are members of the public finding the library for the first time – interested in poetry but unsure where to start. We usually recommend an anthology such as Emergency Kit (Faber, 1996), Staying Alive (Bloodaxe, 2002), Identity Parade(Bloodaxe, 2010), Dear World and Everyone In It (Bloodaxe, 2013), or the annual anthologies The Forward Book of Poetry (Forward) and The Best British Poetry (Salt). Another common enquiry (which can be quite tricky) occurs when someone returns a book they’ve enjoyed and asks for “another poet like this one”. This can involve a bit of inquiring on our part to find out exactly what it was about the poet that rocked their boat.

Of course, as a specialist collection, quite serious academic research is always happening quietly in the background – we recently supported researchers who travelled from abroad specifically to view our holdings on the British poet and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair (we have lots) and the U.S. punk poet Kathy Acker (we have little but some of it is pretty unique).

On our website we have a section Poetry Queries with a link to Ask a Librarian and a choice of email subject headings. The two most popular are “Where does this quote come from?” and “Where can I find this poem?”. Regularly, people are seeking fondly remembered poems from their childhood or schooldays, or poems they’ve heard on the radio. Often enquirers include some history of their life during the period when the poem was encountered. This adds a poignancy to any research we do in finding the poem, and can make tracing the poem very rewarding.

We subscribe to several subscription poetry databases (all of which are accessible to our users in the library) which are fully searchable, and we also hold a searchable record of every poem we have previously found – this is unique to us and sometimes holds the key to finding a poem we’ve searched everywhere else for.

Of course, we don’t always trace a poem and so we have our Lost Quotations section of the website. Unfound poems are posted here and any of our website visitors can comment. The online version grew from a pre-internet notice board in the Poetry Library:

Our most popular Lost Quotation thread is for the children’s poem ‘One dark day in the middle of the night’ which has had 184 comments posted so far. Our Frequently asked for Poems section offers another insight into our users’ needs.

Another kind of enquiry can be about particular events – poems for weddings, civil partnerships, funerals, births etc. We hold several anthologies of poems for specific occasions but it’s really difficult to recommend poems for big life-events so we will always encourage enquirers to come to the library to do their own research if at all possible. We can also point enquirers from further afield to some useful websites like and, both of which list poems by theme, and, of course, our catalogue where it’s possible to search by Book Theme and Poem Subject.

Our next most popular Ask a Librarian subject heading is “How Can I Publish My Poetry?” We have a set reply where we begin by explaining that most people start to publish their poetry by sending it to magazines. We suggest that enquirers come to the library to look through the latest issues of our current poetry magazines to see which ones they like – if they like the magazine it’s more likely that the magazine’s editor will like their work. If they are not able to get to the library, examples of the poems contained in some of the poetry magazines can be accessed on our full-text website at  We also suggest they try entering competitions to promote their poetry and we can direct them to our list of current competitions

For poets starting out who want to get feedback on their work we maintain a list of Writing Groups across the country And for poets who feel they have enough poems for a book or pamphlet, we maintain a list of poetry publishers (We rely on poetry organisations to let us know about their competitions and writing groups, and we are always keen to hear from new poetry publishers and magazines, so our Ask a Librarian facility has an option “Request to add link to Poetry Library website”). We conclude our set reply by advising them to join The Poetry Library and read as much poetry as possible.

We sometimes get parents emailing us poems written by their children, asking us what can be done with these works of budding genius. Unfortunately, the two magazines we knew of that published poetry by children have now folded but poetry competitions for children and young people are becoming more common and we maintain a list on our website

The Poetry Society offers Youth Membership for 11-18 year olds and always we give the most useful piece of advice we know of when it comes to writing poetry – read as much of it as you can, and then read some more. Finally, we’ll suggest to any parent that they bring their children to the library, if at all possible. That’s what we’re here for.

So on the whole we are not floored for too long. And even when we are, it’s such a thrill for us when, looking through a book of poetry, we finally come across a line from a poem that sounds familiar and then suddenly realise it’s the poem that somebody has been trying to find on our Lost Quotations site for the last however many years. It makes it all worthwhile.

The Poetry Library is located on Level 5 of The Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. We are open Tuesday to Sunday 11-8. Our telephone number is 020 7921 0943 and we can be emailed with enquiries on

Refer 32 (1) Spring 2016


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