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Collection Houses Works of Women Authors From World Fairs

The Northwestern University Library houses a valuable, one-of-a-kind collection of literature written by women over two centuries.

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February 5, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- The Northwestern University Library houses a valuable, one-of-a-kind collection of literature written by women over two centuries.

Made up of more than 2,000 volumes displayed at two World Fairs and many other books collected over the years, this collection offers scholars and others an insight into the thoughts and concerns of women writers and the state of women in society, nationally and internationally, from 1833-1940, says Scott Krafft, the acting head of the McCormick Library of Special Collections.

"While not all the authors were Feminists by either the standards of today or even of their own times, the collection is perhaps even more interesting than one created with a more unified focus may have been," says Krafft. "And it's just wonderful to have these artifacts from the Chicago's two World's Fairs in the Library."

From May to October 1893, Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition. More than 27 million people came to see the exhibits, examine the newest technology and explore the grounds. One of the main attractions was the Woman's Building (designed by 23-year-old architect Sophia Hayden), which served as the center of women's activities and exhibits. Among the many exhibits in this building was a library made up of more than 7,000 volumes authored, illustrated, edited or translated by women from 40 states and 23 foreign countries.

Designed to highlight the contribution of women to the world of print and the literary and intellectual achievement of women, this library displayed valuable manuscripts, rare books, popular fiction, scholarly works, self-published volumes, scrapbooks of journalistic writing, yearbooks, cookbooks, newspapers and musical scores. Among these books were 42 translations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and original manuscripts by Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, George Eliot and George Sand.

After the close of the Fair in 1893, about 4,000 of these volumes were donated to the Chicago Public Library. The rest were sent to the New York State Library at Albany or returned to their original lenders.

Forty years later, Chicago hosted another World's Fair, the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933. Inspired by the Women's Building Library Exhibit in 1893, two groups put together exhibits of women's writing for this Fair. The International Conclave of Women Writers, led by Grace Thompson Seton, assembled an International Books Exhibit made up of books and musical scores, many autographed, from more than 34 countries. These books were displayed in the Palmer House Hotel downtown where the group met for a week of seminars and presentations in July of that year.

A second collection of books, the 100 Best Books by American Women Authors from 1833 to 1933, organized by the National Council of Women, was displayed in the Social Sciences Hall on the fair grounds during the summer and fall of 1933. Among the 100 works were many books written by suffragists, Nobel Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize winners including Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Amy Lowell.

Northwestern Librarian Theodore Wesley Koch spent the week attending the International Women's Writer's Conclave and befriended Seton. By the end of the week, the National Council of Women donated 1,000 of these books to Northwestern University. Koch named the collection Biblioteca Femina, after the first documented women's library founded in Italy in 1842, and placed the volumes together in the Deering Library even though many people felt that they should not be separated from the other written material on the sole basis of gender.

For the next eight years, Koch and Seton continued to encourage authors and literary groups around the world to send materials to Northwestern in an effort to build the best collection of literary works by women ever assembled.

In one such letter, Koch wrote: "We urge the various organizations of women writers throughout the world to send additions to the collection from time to time so that it may be kept up to date. Also we hope that eventually the collection will contain the best literary and musical productions of women in every country throughout the world."

In 1936, the Chicago Public Library's Board of Directors donated 1,234 books to Northwestern that had been exhibited at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893. By 1937, Koch and Seton had acquired a copy of every volume that was originally displayed in the 100 Best Books by American Women Exhibit. Both of these later acquisitions were added to the original Biblioteca Femina gift of 1933.

Unfortunately, the Biblioteca Femina never became the collection Koch and Seton had dreamed of. The constraints of World War II and Koch's death in 1941 put an end to the active soliciting of books. Over the next few decades these books were dispersed throughout the Northwestern University Library and shelved by call number.

"Continuing to build and separately maintain a collection in which the only collecting principle was the author's gender became impossible when so many women were writing on every conceivable topic," Krafft explains, "but regardless of this current physical dispersion the collection remains a fine testament to the savvy of Koch and Seton."

The books in this collection can still be found in the Library stacks by the "BF" visible on the spine and by a bookplate in the front of each book, says Krafft. Some of the more valuable books include the six-volume "History of Woman Suffrage" by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, and, among the many signed copies of books sent to the Fairs, a presentation copy of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando," written in 1928.

"The collection is both an evocative link to milestones of Chicago history and a valuable resource for ongoing scholarship," Krafft said. "Not only did it bring to Northwestern University Library rare individual titles that would not have found a home here otherwise, but as an aggregate its potential as a topic of cultural study is manifold and has only just been tapped."
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