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PhD alumna Sarah Wadsworth helps re-create an 1893 library with 8000 volumes of women's writing
When Sarah Wadsworth (PhD ‘00) began collaborating with library scholar Wayne A. Wiegand on a project that would become Right Here I See My Own Books: The Woman’s Building Library at the World’s Columbian Exposition, she was a Minnesota graduate student, and he’d been researching the topic off and on for over 15 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Another 15 years later, she’s Associate Professor of English at Marquette University, and he’s Professor Emeritus at Florida State, and this year they celebrated their book’s publication by donating the proceeds toward the establishment of a National Women’s History Museum.
Right Here I See My Own Books traces the all-out all-female effort to create a comprehensive library of women’s writing since 1492 for the Woman’s Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (also called the Columbian Exposition). The book also provides a lively dissection of how some 19th-century women perceived women’s literary culture, as represented by the 8000-volume library. Wiegand provides the historical narrative, and Wadsworth the analysis of the collection—especially in terms of the important issues of its era: popular literary genres, race, and regionalism. Wadsworth is also the author of her own volume, In the Company of Books: Literature and its "Classes" in Nineteenth-Century America (2006).
1. In the acknowledgments, you thank the Department of English’s Early American subfield. Member Emily Todd (PhD '99) first connected you and Wiegand. What was the first work you did here at Minnesota?
This was long before we had created a database of the titles in the Woman’s Building Library, and it was before Google Books even existed. Wilson Library had a lot of the books in the collection, but at that point I was really just trying to get a handle on the library as a whole by surveying the shelf-list. It was almost overwhelming—nearly a hundred pages of small type in double columns. I showed it to my adviser [Professor] Don Ross and admitted that my best idea so far was to take a large set of multicolored highlighter pens to it and look for patterns. Don said that I shouldn’t underestimate the usefulness of old-fashioned methods. This, of course, was excellent advice. I remember passing an early draft of my first chapter around the Early American subfield for critique. I always found the subfield to be both intellectually challenging and wonderfully supportive.
2. Many of the works included in the Woman's Building Library were important then and forgotten now. In your reading did you find books that deserved a better fate?
Sometimes I was surprised by the pleasure of reading forgotten novels, but at the same time it wasn’t difficult to see why even enjoyable books disappear from view. At times I found myself absorbed in a novel that turned on a crisis most readers today probably wouldn’t find compelling—for example, whether the church should become more liberal in its theology. Near the end of the project, I read a novel called Two Modern Women by Kate Gannett Wells. The novel is well- written, the characters interested me, and the plotlines tapped into late 19th-century social history, including immigration, the labor movement, and the acceptance of women in professions that had been traditionally closed to them. Throughout the novel, Wells, an anti-suffragist, engages thoughtfully with these politically fraught issues, but in the end her allegiances don’t accord well with the viewpoints of most readers today. Like many other 19th-century women writers, Wells used her fiction for social and political ends, and for all her skill as a novelist this contingency proved limiting.
3. You are donating the proceeds of this book to the establishment of a National Women’s History Museum (preposterous that it hasn't happened yet!). Have you considered the re-creation of the Woman’s Building Library online?
Absolutely! We’ve already published the database of U. S. titles online, and Marija Dalbello, Associate Professor of Library and Information Studies at Rutgers (and a former doctoral advisee of Wayne’s), has launched a very elegant website devoted to the foreign titles, which we were barely able to touch on in Right Here I See My Own Books. These are strictly bibliographical resources, so far, but at some point I’d like to see links added so that users can jump from a citation to the digitized text. Ideally, Northwestern University, which houses the largest extant body of original volumes from the Woman’s Building Library, would re-create the collection online. Perhaps someday the National Women’s History Museum will consider developing an online exhibit devoted to the Woman’s Building Library, or even an interactive exhibit in the museum itself.
4. You are working on another volume about the 1893 Women's Building Library?
There’s still plenty of room for additional research on the Woman’s Building Library, especially research on the books contributed by countries other than the United States. I’m now in the early stages of planning a co-edited collection on these foreign titles with Dalbello at Rutgers. I’m also hoping to see other scholars continuing to work with the Woman’s Building Library database, which I originally developed with Wayne and a team of research assistants in Madison and then later passed on to Melodie Fox, who is completing a doctorate in LIS at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Melodie was able to enlarge and improve the database, and I hope that trend continues.
5. What is the project receiving your attention right now?
At present I’m working on a critical introduction to a new paperback edition of the first American novel: Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman by William Williams (Indiana University Press, 2013). This project also has Minnesota roots, which I can trace back to [Professor] Ed Griffin’s seminar on the First American Novels in the spring of 1995. But that’s another story!
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