The Stainforth Database: Re-Collecting a 19th-Century Library of Women’s Writing

IMG_0152[Presented by invitation on the CU faculty panel, dh+CU Symposium, CU-Boulder, August 22, 2013]

In his keynote this morning, Trevor Muñoz mentioned the importance of Digital Humanists working in teams. Today, I am presenting on behalf of Team Stainforth, which includes: Deborah Hollis in Special Collections, Holley Long of CU Libraries, myself in the English Department, Elizabeth Newsom with CU Libraries, and the support and enthusiasm of Special Collections colleagues Amanda Brown, Susan Guinn-Chipman, Chris Levine, Greg Robl, and past and present students who have helped us with scanning and transcribing. We really are an excited team.

Specifically, we’re passionate about a mid-19th century manuscript in our rare books collection here in Norlin Library, entitled Catalogue of the library of female authors of the Rev. J. Fr. Stainforth.[i] To understand the manuscript, it helps to know a little bit about the author, though there is very little published about him.


Like many people with money to spend in nineteenth-century Britain, the Reverend John Francis Stainforth devoted his surplus funds to collecting things and his surplus time to curating and documenting his archives. He is most famous as a stamp collector: he provided the basis for the first stamp catalogue published in English and for having inspired the formation of the Royal Philatelic Society in 1869. Stainforth also possessed an important collection of seashells. However, what is most fascinating to me, as a scholar of 18th and 19th century literature, is that during his lifetime Stainforth collected over 6,000 books for his private library. This library is not only important for its considerable size, but also for its particular contents. His 6,000-volume library contained only works written by American and British women poets and playwrights. The range of authors whose works he collected include 15th-century author Juliana Bernes, 18th-century African American author Phillis Wheatley, and Victorian-era author Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Genres represented in the collection include poetry, plays, novels, essays, letters, and manuscripts – but only those written by female poets or playwrights. This voluminous collection enables us to ask and, with the help of computer analysis, to answer questions about how women’s writing was circulated, valued, collected, organized, and displayed in the nineteenth century.[ii]

The knowledge of this important historical library of women’s writing exists today thanks to Stainforth’s foresight and assiduous dedication to recording his entire bibliographical project in this 600-page manuscript that we are so fortunate to own, here, at CU Libraries. Before his death in 1866, Stainforth painstakingly logged the author, title, publication information, and shelf location of each book in his vast library.

Slide03He also tracked his wish list of books to acquire in the same Catalog manuscript and crossed off each book as he added it to his library and to his list of holdings. (Finding the Wish List was a true “Indiana Jones” moment – we had to flip the book over to discover and read it.) The Catalog of his 6,000 books and his ambitious wish list has been scanned to provide public access to its page images within CU’s Digital Library in LUNA.

It’s likely that you’re thinking: Why didn’t Team Stainforth stop after scanning the page images of the Catalog and publishing them in our Digital Library? Why take the long road and turn this manuscript into a searchable database? There are 4 important answers to this question: (1) the exceptional size and scope of Stainforth’s collection, (2) it adds a new kind of historical collection of women’s writing to those available online, (3) it offers a counter-view to the auctioneer’s published Catalog, and (4) we want to use the database to learn more about the circulation, collection, and value of women’s writing in the 19th century as encountered by an actual consumer of these books.[iii]

A Collection the Size and Scope of a World-Class Spectacle

Stainforth’s collection of over 6,000 books by American and British women poets and playwrights would have been considered an enormous collection in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, for the time, this collection would have been considered nearly large enough to be a spectacle at the World’s Fair, with an audience of millions.

Slide05In 1893, about 25 years after Stainforth’s death, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago featured an attraction called the Woman’s Building. In addition to being a hub for women’s activities, exhibits, and organizations, the Woman’s Building contained a bibliographic spectacle: a collection of 7,000 books “authored, illustrated, edited, or translated by women” (Wadsworth 1). According to scholar Sarah Wadsworth, this collection was “the first attempt in history to represent in a single collection the global contribution of women to the world of letters” (1, my emphasis). More than 27 million people came to the World’s Columbian Exposition, where the Woman’s Building book exhibit showed for 7 consecutive months (Wadsworth 1). Wadsworth describes the collection and its spectacle:

Truly more of a museum of books than a fully operational library, the Woman’s Building Library (WBL) was experienced chiefly as spectacle and display of the countless visitors of 1893 who gazed at the walls and walls of gleaming oak bookcases, peered into the display cases of autograph manuscripts and other literary artifacts, or simply admired the portraits and busts of famous women writers. With its emphasis on materiality—and material culture of texts—the WBL made physically evident to fairgoers what could formerly only be imagined: the substantial literary and intellectual achievement of women. (1)

Wadsworth’s description of the 1893 World Exposition book exhibit sounds a lot like Stainforth’s own collection, despite the 1,000-book difference and, of course, without paying viewers. If the WBL’s 7,000-book exhibit, compiled by a brigade of collectors, was large enough to be a spectacle in 1893 for an audience of 27 million people, then Stainforth’s collection of 6,000 books by women authors, compiled by just one person, was certainly big enough to be the size and scope a world-class spectacle in the 1860s. Though it was not set on as grand or as public a stage as The Woman’s Building collection, Stainforth’s collection was the true first library to show the global contributions of women writers through the medium of the library, approximately 30 years before the World’s Fair exhibit.

A second reason to make a database project from the Stainforth manuscript is that it will offer a new kind of historical collection of women’s writing to those that are already on the web. In her essay “Can Information Be Unfettered?” Amy Earhart calls for Digital Humanists to “examine the canon that we . . . are constructing” (317) and, further, encourages us to “reinvigorate the spirit of previous scholars who believed that textual recovery was crucial to their work” (317). The Stainforth Database editors answer Earhart’s call by recovering women’s writing in a collection that reflects how it was obtained and valued by those in the mid-19th century book market. In contrast, most digital projects that recover women’s writing, like the ORLANDO Project and Women Writers Online, include texts selected by contemporary scholars to suit their research agendas.[iv]

Slide06Third, creation of the Stainforth Catalog database is an important act of scholarship because it offers a counter-view to the only other published record of Stainforth’s library: the auctioneers’ list. After Stainforth’s death in 1866, the auction house Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge published the list of his books to be sold off during a 6-day-long auction in 1867. Sotheby’s auction list contains 3,076 separate lots, including all of Stainforth’s books as well as some manuscripts and engravings. The auction list even contains an entry for Stainforth’s own Catalog manuscript – the one the auctioneers probably used to make their own list, and the book we have downstairs in Special Collections.

It follows that Sotheby’s version of the Catalog is not built to promote the publications of women poets and playwrights. Rather, it’s been edited purely for profit. The auction catalog even sports a new title, which doubles as a sales pitch for the auction lots. It reads: Catalogue of the extraordinary library, unique of its kind, formed by the late Rev. F. J. Stainforth: consisting entirely of works of British and American poetesses, and female dramatic writers, together with some interesting unpublished manuscripts and autograph letters, also a few engravings, framed and glazed. The title-as-advertisement is a good indication of what the auction house did with Stainforth’s manuscript: they used it to make a comprehensive list that was tempting to buyers, who would show no remorse about plucking apart this important monument to women’s authorship in the process of building up their own book collections.

At present, Gale publishes two versions of Sotheby’s Stainforth auction catalog in its Sabin Americana series. There is a no-frills print-on-demand edition as well as an electronic edition of this same auction catalog, which CU Libraries subscribes to. (That recent digital acquisition has been a huge help for this project – thank you CU Libraries.)

While Gale’s electronic auction list is somewhat searchable – it suffers from dirty OCR – it also lacks valuable information that is in the original manuscript Catalog and that drastically colors the way Stainforth’s collection is received today:

  • First, it does not have Stainforth’s shelf marks for each work that tell us how he organized his collection in his library. The auctioneers replaced the shelf marks with lot numbers – signifiers of the library’s dissolution.
  • The auction list lacks Stainforth’s equal valuation of each work in his catalog. Unsurprisingly, the auction house catalog annotates the list of items in Stainforth’s collection to emphasize the value and rarity of certain items. Those items that are not especially notable or valuable receive no special annotation. For example, on the current slide you can see that the auctioneers annotate auction item 283, Juliana Berners 1548 edition of the Booke of Haukyng, Huntying, and Fysshyng with a long note that describes it as “black letter, with woodcuts, the first title-page, A 4, and small corner of last leaf supplied in facsimile, morocco . . . OF EXCESSIVE RARITY, THE ONLY COPY NOTICED IN LOWNDES’S MANUEL, is that priced in the Biblioteca Anglo-Poetica at £35” (15). Most items in the auction list have no annotation of their particular value. On the left, you have Stainforth’s entry for this work in his manuscript – it is listed under an alternate, less sexy title—Book of St. Albans—and has no annotations regarding its value. In the manuscript, it has the same value as the entries above and below it.
  • The auction list also lacks Stainforth’s manuscript organization: works in the auction catalog are sometimes grouped by author and sometimes sold separately, depending on what will make the most $ for the auction house.
  • Finally, Sotheby’s auction Catalog entirely omits Stainforth’s wish list. There is no sign in the Sotheby’s list of Stainforth’s desired acquisitions or that at one time he desired a book and then could happily add it to the correct main Catalog page, on the verso side left blank for new acquisitions. For the auctioneers, the wish list had no value: if a book wasn’t present in the library to sell, why bother listing it at all?

CU Libraries’ Stainforth Database Project will enable searchable digital access to Stainforth’s landmark library and Catalog not as it was valued and sold off by auctioneers for profit. Instead, our database will re-collect and display Stainforth’s books as the collector organized and valued each work listed in his Catalog manuscript – again, this includes all of the 6,000 works he could acquire in London that were published by women poets and dramatists between the 16th and the mid-19th centuries, as well as the valuable wish list in the back of his catalog that helps us track the acquisition process. The Stainforth Database Project needs to exist in order to balance out the auction house view that has been the only accessible version of Stainforth’s collection to date.

Slide07We want to use the searchable Catalog database we’re creating to generate visualizations and tools that scholars can use for further work. The visualizations we want to create include a virtual representation of Stainforth’s library as well as a mapped network of the book’s publishers, printers, and subscribers.

I argue that Stainforth’s manuscript Catalog is designed to function as a finding aid for locating certain books in his collection and also as a blueprint for re-building his library. In other words, Stainforth wanted his Catalog to be used to find items within his collection and, I posit, to reassemble the collection. In other words, his shelf marks are a sign of his ownership and curation of these books. His manuscript catalog lists his holdings in alphabetical order by author last name. Under each author’s name, editions are listed chronologically from earliest to latest. Thus, a researcher curious to see if he had any books by Anne Radcliffe in his collection can find the place where the R’s start in the manuscript and work forward from there. To see how the books were organized on his shelves, on the other hand, one must match up the shelf marks and find out which books were neighbors. To save loads of time, we will use computing to organize the volumes by shelf marks and can then analyze the library’s bibliographical schema.

Rebuilding the collection using Stainforth’s shelf marks can help us answer a long list of questions, including these general queries:

  • How women’s authorship may have been categorized and stored in the mid-19th century – by genre, by author, by size of the book, by pub date, or by edition, for example. His shelf marks indicate that books were not stored in alphabetical order by author – thus, the organizing principle will be deciphered after we enter and sort the shelf marks. Knowing how his books were organized provides a clue about how published books by women were valued and experienced in a library.
  • Finally, rebuilding Stainforth’s library recreates the spectacle that his library once was – a world-class collection of American and British women’s writing that, had it been shown 30 years later, would have drawn a crowd at a World Exposition.
  • I have my own wish list of specific questions that this project will help me answer for my  dissertation, and I expect each scholar would have her own unique research-inspired list of queries.

We would like to do social network mapping in order to learn more about the professional networks surrounding women poets and playwrights in the nineteenth century. In particular, we will map publishers, printers, and subscribers that help fund, produce, and distribute books authored by women.

The Present Task: Transcription

Slide08While we have long-term goals for producing visualizations with our data, we also have to pay strict attention to our current task, which is transcription. We have about 500 more pages to transcribe, and we hope to acquire funding so that students can be paid to help us with this transcription effort. In the process, students would learn a lot about book history, working with manuscripts, and even some computer science. Holley Long created a system whereby we can access PDFs of the manuscript pages and transcribe one line at a time into a Google Form. The Google Form feeds data into our database linked by page and line # and also by cross-references between entries, when Stainforth indicates this.

What’s Next for Team Stainforth?

Our first priority is to finish transcribing the Catalog so that we can have the text of each entry in the database to search on, as well as all of the shelf marks for each item, and the wish list. This offers researchers their first opportunity to not just read the entries in the Stainforth, but to use a search field to find specific authors, titles, or dates. However, we are hopeful that we will be able to have students help us with transcription so that we can simultaneously start the TEI encoding portion of the project: to provide encoded linked texts for each entry in the Catalog. We plan to use open source pre-encoded texts where we can find them, since all of these works are in the public domain and many have been digitized already. We’re also looking forward to taking the Stainforth on the road to this year’s MLA in Chicago to participate in the “DH From the Ground Up” session and we look forward to drafting grant proposals for additional funding for our project.

Slide10I want to conclude with a topic that I was prompted to address in this presentation, which is what type of support on campus would benefit the Stainforth Project. While we are really charmed to have this incredible manuscript to turn into machine-readable and processable data, and we are equally ecstatic about our interdisciplinary team, we have a few needs regarding skills and funding. We need training as a team since only one of us – myself – has had training and experience with TEI. We will also be creating and processing a large data set so we will also seek training for long-term data curation. We don’t require any additional technology for this project yet, but we do very much need funding to pay for help with the transcription process and with the process of finding and encoding electronic texts that will be in Stainforth’s virtual library.

The final two items on my wish list provide more general support for DH scholars at CU-Boulder. I’ve been working on DH projects since 2008 and for the majority of that time my DH network has been located well beyond my home institution. I ask questions and participate in dialogue with DH colleagues from all over the country, Canada, and Europe with the help of social networks like Twitter, and I try to attend one DH conference per year so that I can learn from and share work with my colleagues face-to-face. I am so delighted that this symposium is a step toward bringing together Digital Humanists on this campus in a shared workspace – a room on campus where we can find other DHers working (what do other DHers look like when they’re working?) and an online forum for discussion. Much like book projects, DH projects require a great deal of labor, trouble-shooting, celebration of tiny successes, funding, and long-term project planning. Senior DH colleagues have made great strides toward evaluating DH work for tenure and promotion, and I hope that in the near future graduate-student DH work will also count toward our degree requirements. However, unlike most book projects, DH work often requires a team of collaborators from various disciplines to work together. Team Stainforth looks forward to sharing knowledge with and learning from other project teams here at CU. Thank you.


Works Cited

Stainforth, Francis John. Catalog of the library of female authors of the Rev. J. Fr. Stainforth. N.d. [Before 1866].

—. Catalogue of the extraordinary library, unique of its kind, formed by the late Rev. F. J. Stainforth: consisting entirely of works of British and American poetesses, and female dramatic writers, together with some interesting unpublished manuscripts and autograph letters, also a few engravings, framed and glazed. Sabin Americana: Print Editions 1500-1926.  London: Dann & Sons, 1867.

—. Catalogue of the extraordinary library, unique of its kind, formed by the late Rev. F. J. Stainforth: consisting entirely of works of British and American poetesses, and female dramatic writers, together with some interesting unpublished manuscripts and autograph letters, also a few engravings, framed and glazed. Sabin Americana: Print Editions 1500-1926.  London: Dann & Sons, 1867. Web.

Earhart, Amy E. “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2012.

Wadsworth, Sarah. “Preface.” Libraries & Culture 14.1 (Winter, 2006): 1-4.

—, and Wayne A. Wiegand. Right Here I See My Own Books. Amhurst and Boston: U of Massassachusetts P, 2012.

[i] Philatelic sources and his death certificate list his name as Francis John, according to Wikipedia, but his name as it appears penciled onto the title page of the Stainforth Catalog manuscript is John Francis, or “J. Fr.”

[ii] For example: Ann Radcliffe was a well-known novelist during Stainforth’s lifetime and her several novels would have been easy for him to obtain. However, he only collected her book that included a dedicated section of verse – a detail that I find extremely interesting. The well-known novelist Fanny Burney is also absent from his collection except for her 1818 volume of Tragic Dramas. For women novelists who did not publish poetry, like Jane Austen, he did not collect any of their work. But for women playwrights and poets who were prolific and published, like Joanna Baillie, he dedicated shelves of his library and pages of his manuscript to their titles.



[iii] One of my questions is whether or not Stainforth actually read these books. We need to do more research to determine this information.

[iv] Another project that recollects historical libraries is the Legacy Libraries website.


One Comment

  1. […] ← The Stainforth Database: Re-Collecting a 19th-Century Library of Women’s Writing November 22, 2013 · 8:50 am ↓ Jump to Comments […]

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