From May to October 1893 the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago registered more than 27 million admissions of people who came to see the exhibits, explore the grounds, and take in the myriad scientific, technological, and cultural wonders on display. One such marvel was the Woman's Building, a stately and impressive neoclassical structure that served as a nexus of women's activities, exhibits, organizations, and leadership. Prominently located on the Court of Honor just inside the entrance to the fair's celebrated White City, the Woman's Building was conceived as both a monument to the progress women had made and an inspiration to their further advancement.
The exposition's Board of Lady Managers, formed through special legislation that granted women an administrative role at a World's Fair for the first time, decided early on that the Woman's Building would feature a literary exhibit to highlight the contribution of women to the world of print. A signal achievement in women's history and in cultural history more broadly, the resulting library gathered under one roof more than 7,000 volumes authored, illustrated, edited, or translated by women. Showcasing the literary achievements of women from across the country and around the world, this remarkable collection resulted from the first attempt in history to represent in a single collection the global contribution of women to the world of letters.
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 by 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 the materiality—and the 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. And that physical presence of well over 7,000 volumes, together with ancillary artifacts, had a powerful, sometimes overwhelming, impact on visitors unaccustomed to thinking about women's writing on such a [End Page 1] monumental scale. Yet even as the display made visible, en masse, authors and texts that might otherwise have had only a very circumscribed existence outside the fair, the arrangement of the literary exhibit rendered many individual authors and clusters of texts invisible, or nearly so, lost in the crowd. Such is the case of works by African American writers, for example, which, aside from a small number of texts by black women highlighted as part of the New York women's exhibit, simply blended into the great, undifferentiated mass of books lining the walls of the WBL.
This special issue of Libraries & Culture brings to light many aspects and dimensions of the WBL, some of which were visible in 1893 but have since disappeared from view and others that were obscured in 1893 but, through research and recovery, now begin to emerge. The essays that follow analyze multiple strands or cross-sections of the roughly 5,000 texts contributed to the library by women of the United States. Bringing together scholars of literature, history, American studies, and library and information studies, these essays survey and analyze the contributions of women writers to the fields of American fiction and poetry, religion and devotional literature, African American literature, and children's literature and, in doing so, reveal the cultural significance, richness, and complexity of women's contributions in these areas.
The WBL offers almost limitless possibilities for research and analysis. Yet at the same time it presents unusual methodological challenges and obstacles. Most conspicuously, the library is no longer intact as a unified collection of books. Parts of it survive (although these are largely dispersed), but large chunks of what was once the WBL have been lost or destroyed. Aside from scattered remnants and long-dispersed volumes, only the blueprint of the collection survives in the form of a shelf list created in the library during the fair's six-month run to complement a more thorough, systematic catalog (now lost). (See "The...