Visualizing Stainforth’s Library Bookshelves: Where Were Cobbold’s Books?


How did Stainforth arrange his books? We need computing to help us answer this question.

For me, one of the most important parts of the Stainforth Library project is our endeavor to create a digital visualization of how the collector arranged his books in his private library. My plan is to do this with Processing. The manuscript catalog of Stainforth’s library lists shelf-marks for each book in his collection and we can obtain book dimensions and physical bibliography data from sources such as the Library of Congress and rare book library databases. Each shelf-mark is comprised of a letter and a number. Occasionally a work will have more than one shelf-mark.

Why Does Stainforth’s Shelving System Matter? It is crucial to learn how Stainforth’s collection was organized because, as scholars such as Elizabeth Eger, Laura Mandell, and Chantel Lavoie have demonstrated, ways of collecting (or omitting) women’s writing have impacted women writers’ agency, historically, as well as the way in which we receive these works now. In Misogynous Economies, Mandell argues that 18th-century anthologies “kill off” women’s poetry by rendering these texts embodied and, therefore, perishable and mortal, in comparison to male poets’ works that persist, immortalized in “authoritative” collections (127). Mandell says, in agreement with Eger, that “it is because women are equated with the material that a forgetting of and disgust with women poets underwrites canon formation itself” (127). Distilling this idea, Lavoie argues that “poetic collections are cultural constructs that also reconstruct” (14) — and I would argue that the same statement applies to collections of drama, as well. Both Mandell and Lavoie focus on collections of women’s writing gathered for a single book title and usually within one volume.

In addition to anthologies and miscellanies, compilers and collectors also gathered 18th- and 19th-century women’s writing among volumes that filled libraries–spaces that traditionally belonged to men. Thus, I add scholarship on collections of women’s writing in books gathered in a library to studies of women’s writing collected on a smaller scale within a book’s cover. Studying Stainforth’s 6,000-book collection of writing by five centuries of women authors, its acquisition and shelving, the relative values of the works therein, the relationship between his collection of women’s writing and its archive in a masculine space, and its dissolution in the Sotheby’s auction, begins the work of discovering how legacy collections of women’s writing (Stainforth’s and other libraries) have impacted canon formation and scholarship.

The project of decoding the Stainforth library’s shelving system is one that requires computing for analysis. We have begun analyzing the shelf-marks of his 6,000-volume library by hand (because I simply couldn’t wait for the data to start) and our results, thus far, are inconclusive; we cannot find an obvious pattern that explains how he organized his books. Yet, given his reputation as a disciplined and meticulous bibliophile, conchologist, and philatelist, and given 19th-century perceptions of literary genre and authorship, we feel strongly that Stainforth’s shelving system, once uncovered, will be instructive. We need a larger data set–a sortable, digital data set–to better analyze Stainforth’s shelving system, book by book, to understand his patterns of acquisition and archival methodologies. His archival practices participate in the history of the circulation, or containment, of women’s writing–texts that, until the late 20th century, were undervalued and segregated by patriarchal agendas.

Where were Cobbold’s Books in Stainforth’s Library of Women’s Writing? Cobbold’s works are listed under the shelf-marks C7, K3, L7, J2, and H6. From this, we learn that his books were not archived in alphabetical order by author name. I leafed through the manuscript to identify other works with the same shelf-marks as Cobbold’s books, and I discovered that not only were books with the same author located on different shelves, but books on the same shelf also seemed to have different themes, publication years, publishers, and publisher locations. Additionally, these works seem to not be grouped by genre, either.

We look forward to completing our manuscript transcription efforts, as these will deliver the data necessary to analyze Stainforth’s shelving methodologies with computing. We will continue to blog our progress as we learn more.

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