“La bibliothèque devient une aventure” (Umberto Eco quoted by Chantal Thomas, Souffrir)
Dear friends and readers,
Friday afternoon I went to hear two well-delivered (one was rousing) lectures in the Library of Congress, hosted by the Washington Area Print Group (put together by the indefatigible and generous-spirits Eleanor Shevlin and her colleague, Sabrina Baron) and the (as yet invisible as to building) National Women’s History Museum. John Cole of The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress provided the venue, the Whittal Pavilion. The National Women’s History Museum women spoke briefly too; theirs is a place in the making: a group of people hope to open and start an institution comparable to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Sarah Wadsworth and Wayne Wiegand who wrote the above book (so this was a book launch too) gave two lectures on “the Women’s Building Library at the World’s Columbian Exposition,” the latter better known as the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A woman’s building library does not sound rousing but what it housed and what happened there was inspiriting.
For the first time ever women’s books were gathered together, books
that had been published somehow anyhow since 1492. Even then a few people suggested this was to make women’s books a ghetto: the counterproductive vanity of this can be seen here: only this way can one reach these books, find them, see them, acknowledge, respect, distribute them. For the first time to show one saw a woman’s canon, made visible women’s achievements. The curators and librarians who did this solicited books across the world too — the cut off date the same, 1492.
Huge numbers of women visited and stayed for hours, came back day after day. Although the norms articulated were those of the male canonizing establishment it had become obvious very quickly that women’s genres, kinds of publishing houses, levels of discourse were utterly disparate. There was an adherence to upper class white decorums too in choice of text, but they were conscious of how important the AFrican-American (“colored”) heritage was in the US and prominent black woman authors, artists, and those few women who were middle class or had some kind of position where they could be found and show up and talk effectively were invited. So there was a minority representation. There was even an attempt to get some Spanish, German and French language books printed in the US or Canada.
The norms of buildings for libraries began to change as a result of this library building. To make people [men] respect institutional groups, most buildings built by men (though often cleaned and kept up by women) were of distant impersonal space. (Always this preference for the apparently objective.) The women running the Women’s Art Building wanted a home-y space; they bought comfortable chairs, made up a partly-new style table (it could be found in the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and also Carnegie funded public libraries) where someone could sit comfortably for hours and read — or knit or sit with children. One women did breast-feed while sitting there. They included paintings, sculptures, and miniatures of women’s achievements in other areas. Cookbooks were not omitted.
The two speakers have published “Right here I see my own books:” The Women’s Building Library at the World’s Columbian Exposition” to tell the story. It may be regarded as a kind of companion volume to Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx and her A literature of their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing.
For 18th century the collection was less rich, 17th less so, though here too there is an equivalent book for British books:
and so it goes. (Not to omit Ellen Moers’s Literary Women and Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination.)
Among the things one learns — for the catalogues are partly still partly extant and have been studied carefully, is how, as in the case of the Romantic Canon from the university, the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature doesn’t mirror what real women were primarily reading — except maybe Jane Eyre and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We have to make Mary Ward much more central for English books. George Eliot was a heroine but in the US not as read as a number of today not well known American women authors. Unexpected known queens were heroines: Lady Jane Grey became an icon (not the usual Mary Queen of Scots).
“Right here I see my own books” was a phrase heard said by a woman by
a reporter and used in a book about the exhibit: Marietta Holley’s Samantha at the World’s Fair (1893), became a handle, for women were startled to see put before them sets of books they liked to read, a place they felt at home in intellectually & imaginatively. Wadsworth and Wiegand’s book includes several sites where these books and more information about what was in the building can be accessed & read (not just the titles and where the books are). It is simply so that google and other facsimile on line texts are making available for the first time many of the books by women that were in this building; many of the American ones are in the Library of congress. Another important library for research of such books is the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Book history can be fun; these were Sharp lectures at their best.
Here’s the gist of what Sarah Wadsworth, professor at Marquette University, said: as she talked she named women who were active here and there I name them too.
On May 1, 1893 the Chicago World’s Fair was opened. There was a woman’s building; one of the moving spirits was Bertha Honore Palmer. It became for the time it was there a library of 8000 books by women from all over the world. Books by and about women never before assembled. Frances Cuillard. These provide a vital counter-narrative which however did perpetrate its own exclusions. Subjects included fine applied arts, service, healthy care; the norm controlling their ideas was full “true womanhood,” which meant ideas about femininity, necessary domesticity, benevolence, and education.
Candace Wheeler, an architect, designed the well-appointed building and its inner spaces. She said she wanted to make a decorated home, a place people would feel at home in: it should be “warm” in atmosphere.
Susan Gale Cooke made the color scheme. They wanted “quiet, elegance, literacy, ease.” There was an elaborately carved fireplace, matching curtains on the windows. Ceiling paintings. Portraits of many women. Framed illustrations by women. Pocahontas’s portrait. Many copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, translations, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrait, a sculpture of her. Mary Edmonia Lewis, her Hiawatha sculpture. 16 different languages represented. It was a room rich with many things. Rebecca Felton the first woman senator came.
Regionalism was a vital element. The criteria was meant to be broadly inclusive, and it was assumed how important libraries are as an agent of culture. So if a book got into a library catalogue it was more likely to be among the 8000.
Difficulties encountered: women are not central to the publishing establishment. These people did want to raise the standards given to women’s books. They wanted to contribute to the amelioration of social problems. There was a winnowing, self-winnowing really. Beyond cookbooks, Sunday school books, self-published and privately published books abounded. Working girl favorites, mysteries, sentimental novels, seven some sensationalist.
Wayne Wiegand’s background is that of a long-time librarian professor so he began with the assertion that as the ALA (American Library Association) at the time reflected the political compromises of groups of males, so the choices, shaping of these books, the presentation of them reflected the views of upper class white women. Unless I got it down wrong, he said the library did not permit people to pull down and read these books, only look at them (!). They were treasures to be protected. The books were arranged by state and country and were catalogued according to subject. The Dewey Decimal system was used.
Two prominent African-American women: Frances E. W. Harper and Anna Julia Cooper talked of the heroic struggles of blacks, but radical views and books by black people were excluded. Mary Logan said it was women clasping hands with women. Some black women did want the books by black women separate so they could be seen distinctly, but they were merged with the whole collection. Joan Imogen Howard. Prominent officials spoke and influenced choices. Helen Keller came. Isabel Bate Winslow.
Problems were the frequent name changes of authors, the use by women of pseudonyms. Some practices in non-English books made it difficult to know where to catalogue and then place them precisely.
Silently imposed were some boundaries. So women singled out for celebration: a sanitized image and life of George Eliot. Of Harriet Martineau. Poor Lady Jane Grey. Frances Burney (Madame d’Arblay). The Brontes. Jane Austen. All either apparently single. There were pictures of George Sand, but carefully culled from later in her life. A Kate Field would not be singled out: single, living an unconventional quietly transgressive life. I don’t know if pictures of actresses would be included or which of their life-writings.
It was a way of constructing women’s private and public lives. One could see and begin to study them. The record of their public sphere. Important influence was the 19th century women’s club movement; these influenced how this library and other libraries came to look. Marietta Holley: we can see how women felt and feel about the world. We can imagine communities. So despite limitations since so many books of so many types allowed in, there was an anti-canonical inclusiveness.
In the question and answer period afterwards it emerged that after the exposition was closed, many books were sent back. The largest group did stay in Chicago. The organizers did want a permanent collection and building, but they did not manage this.
It was a testimony to libraries and all they can mean. Today when they are being systematically destroyed by those who want to cut taxes, such a moment of remembrance could function to slow down this murdering of hope, opportunity, rich experience shared across boundaries. My happiest memories are in libraries. See Jim and my library.