Digital Archive: The Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing

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The Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing is a collaborative effort at Dartmouth College and the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) to publish an electronic version of the largest private library of women’s writing in 19th-century Great Britain, owned by Francis John Stainforth (1797-1866), comprised of approximately 7,000 volumes published between the 16th and the mid-19th century. The library contains works by nearly 2,800 unique women authors, most of whom are relative unknowns. I direct this project, which includes our digitization and data curation processes as well as the research team comprised of three paid graduate/lecturer assistants and a programmer. Contemporary scholars have largely overlooked this collection, but bibliographers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries knew about Stainforth’s library and revered it as a “complete” collection of every edition of every title published by women poets and playwrights and circulating until his death. This project recovers this broad, historical view of literature produced by women that was in circulation in Victorian Great Britain, and it offers a new electronic, searchable, and quantitative measure of women’s writing in the 19th century. The Associate Director of the Stanford Literary Lab, Mark Algee-Hewitt, describes our data set as “fascinating,” “incredibly timely,” and “necessary” in its potential to generate new understandings of the circulation of women’s writing from a historical perspective.

Jo Guldi writes that “mapping, code, and data collection must be allied to a sense of memory,”[1] and the Stainforth project helps us interrogate what new information digital humanists can glean from (re)building and studying legacy libraries—or book collections acquired and also often dispersed in the past—instead of making new digital collections based on the desires of contemporary scholars. We are using Stainforth’s 600-page handwritten library catalog, a manuscript owned by CU Libraries Special Collections, as the blueprint to create data and produce the searchable digital archive of Stainforth’s library. In his manuscript catalog, which he updated until his death, Stainforth logged the author, title, edition, publisher, date, and identifying code (possibly a shelfmark) for each item in his vast private collection, as well as a wish list of titles he hoped to acquire in the future. The manuscript also allows us to track his acquisition patterns, since he crossed off books on the wish list when he obtained them and added an entry for that title to the list of books he owned. With the help of a $47,230 seed grant from CU-Boulder awarded for 2015-16, we will publish these data as TEI-encoded XML files in an open data repository and also as a peer-reviewed digital archive with full-text digital editions linked to titles. A later phase of the project will add a virtual “Stainforth Lab,” which will contain related auxiliary projects that are in development as well as pedagogy ideas for teaching with the Stainforth digital archive. The Lab will house our ongoing crowdsourcing effort to find and map Stainforth’s actual books in libraries around the globe, identifiable by his bookplate; we already have approximately 300 books located on a Google map. We will also produce visualizations of the catalog data and pedagogy resources to help teachers use Stainforth data and the archive in courses on women’s studies, literature, DH, bibliography, and other related fields.

Over thirty years ago, Roger Londsdale opened Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology by recounting how he frequently had to answer the question: “Were there any?” Feminist scholars today, like Laura Mandell in her forthcoming essay on feminist work in DH in the second edition of the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities, argue that recovery work on women writers is still vital and far from being complete. Stainforth’s library contains many unknown or little-known women poets, dramatists, and editors—he was a dedicated student of their biographies as well as a collector of their works—and I look forward to putting these women and their texts on the map.

[1] Jo Guldi. “How Information Won’t and Will Save the Climate,” Inscape, June, 20, 2013, accessed October 16, 2015.

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