Alumna Creates Memorial Library Dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut

Julia Whitehead
Julia Whitehead
Julia Whitehead, in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

Situated in the heart of Indianapolis, Kurt Vonnegut’s life and memory lives on as though he never left. Founded in January 2011 by GW Alumna Julia Whitehead, CERT ’98, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is a nonprofit museum and art gallery with educational outreach that commemorates and teaches Vonnegut’s literary and artistic style.

“There was no place to learn Vonnegut; about his life or his books,” said Ms. Whitehead, whose extensive research to find an organization dedicated to the author yielded no results and lead her to make her own.

With the blessing of Vonnegut’s family, Ms. Whitehead began compiling resources for programming and assembled a board of directors to plan events such as book clubs and workshops themed around Vonnegut’s books. But it wasn’t until the Katz and Korin P.C. law firm donated an unused office space that the organization became a store, library, and a museum, complete with Vonnegut’s entire literary collection as well as works of art and trinkets from Vonnegut’s life donated by his family. Today it functions as a physical space where Mr. Vonnegut’s art and possessions can be seen on display while also providing workshops and scholarships to Indianapolis residents.

The library holds a few signature events every year. One famous (or infamous) event centers on American Library Association’s Banned Book Week, a week dedicated to celebrating books that have been banned from public or school libraries in the United States. The library became involved with project in 2011 after two of Vonnegut’s books were banned in a rural Missouri public high school.

“We jumped to action and sent free copies of Vonnegut’s book to any parent or student from that high school that requested the book. We had a donor step up as well and people from all over the globe sending us $5 donations for postage to cover the cost of shipping the books out. It was amazing.” This year, the library hosted numerous authors and artists to speak about censorship while performing artist Tim Youd lived in the library’s front window the entire week, typing out Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

In the spirit of Vonnegut, who used art and writing as a form of therapy after serving in World War II, the library created workshops designed superficially for those who have served in the armed forces. Creative writing classes and book discussions are offered year round as well as the annual Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day event in November, an arts resource fair for veterans and a panel discussion hosted by NPR’s Steve Inskeep. The event takes place during the library’s annual VonnegutFest and celebrates the release of the their literary anthology, So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, a collection of prose, poetry, art and photography created mostly by veterans that is published each Novemeber.

Being the only organization of it’s kind, the memorial library has garnered attention from visitors as far as Russia as well as local support, and their influence continues to grow. But it also allows fans to discover new things about Vonnegut, including Ms. Whitehead.

“We keep learning new things about Vonnegut; his life was so colorful and he could speak to so many people,” says Ms. Whitehead, “He had such a great sense of humor and he wanted to share with others.” And thanks to the memorial library, fans from the Hoosier state to the other side of the world can get a glimpse inside the monkey house.

—Kelly Danver