Right Here I See My Own Books: The Woman's Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition

Article excerpt

Right Here I See My Own Books: The Woman's Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition. By Sarah Wadsworth & Wayne A. Wiegand. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 284, notes, index. Paperback, $28.95.)

Covering 1.8 acres, the Woman's Building at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition was designed by and for women, and remained popular with fairgoers throughout the Fair's six months of exhibiting. One draw to the Woman's Building was its Library, with more than 8,000 volumes of woman-authored works dating from as early as 1492 (honoring Columbus' voyage). Items once contained therein have not received significant scholarly attention until now. Arguing that this Library and its contents deserve a place in the history of women's literature, Sarah Wadsworth and Wayne A. Wiegand offer a behind-the-scenes history of the Library's formation, and analyze representative texts from it.

Drawing on a panoply of archival sources, the first four of seven chapters explore how individuals and groups associated with the Woman's Building Library interacted with each other and exercised power - especially as related to race, class and gender - to influence the Library's formation (p.6). For example, the authors examine how and why some delegates to the Exposition worked to exclude non -white women writers from the collection, while others, such as New York's, deliberately included women of color writers among those representing their state.

New York's relative power looms large in this story, and chapter three explores both how the American Library Association - a "group heavily influenced by New Yorkers" - affected the Library's professionalization, and how the New York Board of Woman Managers exercised a heavy hand to shape the Library's ultimate form and content by insisting that their state's sizable contributions to the Library be featured as an intact state collection (p.66). As such, the Exposition's Board of Lady Managers were strongarmed to alter their plans to arrange the collection according to modern Library practices of cataloguing according to common themes. In addition to upsetting professional librarians associated with the Library, the authors argue that the imposed geographical organization elevated individual authors, and erased thematic commonalities amongst the female-authored works (which ranged from novels to memoirs, pamphlets to cookbooks) that fairgoers might have otherwise perceived upon viewing the collection. …