Women in the White City: Lessons from the Woman's Building Library at the Chicago World's Fair

Article excerpt

Next year will be the 120th anniversary of I the World's Columbian Exposition, more commonly known as the Chicago World's Fair--a grand event that lasted six months, attracted 27 million visitors, and introduced attendees to the Ferris Wheel shredded wheat, and belly dancing.

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Although you won't learn it from Erik Larson's bestseller The Devil in the White City, librarians participated in many aspects of the 1893 fair. A library of literature for youth was a key attraction in the Children's Building, and elsewhere on the grounds a committee of ALA members established a model library that demonstrated innovative practices in our still-new profession.

Now Sarah Wads worth and Wayne Wiegand have brought to light another forgotten aspect of library history connected with the fair. In Right Here I See My Own Books: The Womans Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), the coauthors chronicle the unprecedented collection of works by "women in all ages and all countries" that was housed in the fair's famed Woman's Building.

The library filled a large and beautifully furnished room on the second story of the temporary structure. Wadsworth, a scholar of 19th-century literature, and Wiegand, a library historian, recount the energetic planning and diligent work that went into gathering, cataloging, and exhibiting the impressive collection. It's a surprisingly grippingtale of power struggles, budget crises, and last-minute machinations that will feel familiar to any reader who's strived to meet impossible goals with inadequate resources.

A showcase for women's work

Never before had a library been assembled for the express purpose of showcasing women's literary achievements. Committees of clubwomen in nearly every state of the Unionidentified female authors, living and deceased, and shipped copies of their works to Chicago. Many foreign women contributed books as well. The resulting collection topped 8,000 volumes and represented 24 nations. Women librarians, handpicked by Melvil Dewey, were hired to catalog the books and interact with the public. Debates ensued over the classification system: Politics dictated a geographical shelf arrangement, but a card catalog provided access by author and subject.

The Woman's Building and its library stood as shining examples of what women could accomplish. A few prominent women played outsized roles, including Bertha Palmer, wealthy wife of a leading Chicago businessman and chair of the fair's Board of Lady Managers; interior designer Candace Wheeler; and librarian Edith Clarke. Hundreds of other women, at the national and state levels, formed networks and marshaled resources in an era before women gained the vote and most of the rights we enjoy today.

The brief but glorious history of the Woman's Building Library is a fascinating story in itself, yet Wadsworth and Wiegand perceive a larger significance within the very pages of the library's books. Alongside works by such luminaries as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the library displayed cookbooks, Sunday school texts, biographies, local histories, and popular novels of dubious literary merit. By analyzing representative books, Wadsworth and Wiegand uncover the 'gendered discourses of duty, vocation, and progress reflected in the library's holdings. An active intellectual engagement with the issues of the day is notably visible in the writings by so-called ''Columbian women"--the women directly involved in the fair's success. The books in the library, and the means by which they arrived there, illuminate the complex and contradictory influences of race, class, and regional identity at a pivotal period in American history. Wadsworth and Wiegand are particularly thorough in documenting the semi successful struggles of African-American women for representation in the Woman's Building.

The authors also analyze the library as place. …