My Neukom postdoctoral project here at Dartmouth creates a digital model of Francis John Stainforth’s library, which was an actual private library in London collected in the 19th century that contains only books by women who were writing poetry and plays – some of the most popular genres of the day. What makes this library special is that it was the largest library of books by women writers that we have a record of from the 19th century, until the 1893 World’s Fair.
Recreating this library as a publicly accessible online resource will offer access to works by five centuries of women authors, ranging from 15th-century writer Juliana Berners, to 18th-century African-American poet Phyllis Wheatley, to Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Though scholars of literary history may be familiar with one or all four of those writers and their famous works, there are thousands of titles in this library by women writers who are understudied, fairly unknown, un-anthologized, working class poets and playwrights who merit our attention. Together, the works in this library comprise a deep historical collection from which students, teachers, scholars, and the curious public will benefit greatly.
To summarize, there are several payoffs for this project. It draws much-needed attention to a large population of understudied women writers–and, in doing so, it answers a call that scholars of 18th and 19th-century literary history have been issuing repeatedly. The digital archive also offers a a new view of the extent of poetry and drama published by women writers that was in circulation in the 19th century. That is, we now know from someone collecting and reading at that time–rather than, say, the editors of a Norton anthology–what the corpus of women’s literature in circulation really looked like in London, Europe’s book capitol, between 1830 and 1866. Stainforth teaches us that it was at least 7,000 titles in size.
Since all of the books in Stainforth’s home were auctioned off in 1867, after his death, we must use his library catalog manuscript to tell us what he owned as well as what books were on his radar to find and add to the collection. To put it simply: I’m turning Stainforth’s library catalog into a database. Then that database will be published online as the electronic library.
The library will have 2 interfaces:
(1) a searchable catalog view much like the Baker-Berry Library’s online catalog that you use everyday, and
(2) a view that shows the titles as they appeared on Stainforth’s shelves with each book as a clickable object that opens up and reveals the text of that book.
In this thick lined account book, handled by my colleague Michael Harris, Stainforth painstakingly logged the author, title, edition, publisher, and date of each item in his vast private collection. He lists them here in alphabetical order. You can also see, in the left-hand column, the shelf mark for each title, which we will use to visualize how Stainforth organized the books on his shelves.
Furthermore, this video shows that he used the back of his manuscript as a kind of wish list, he calls it a “Wants” list, of titles to acquire, like an Amazon.com wish list, and when he found a book, he crossed it out in the wish list and added it to the front of the manuscript where he lists his shelved books.
I want to close by thanking the people and resources that make Digital Humanities archival projects like mine possible. They’re like mountaineering expeditions, and they can’t be pulled off alone. The Stainforth project is newly underway here at Dartmouth and I’m looking forward to building this digital archive over the next three years and offering the project as a learning opportunity for my students and colleagues here. Please contact me if you want to talk more about this project, and I would also love to hear about your work.