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Right Here I See My Own Books

The Woman's Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition

Sarah Wadsworth and Wayne A. Wiegand

Publication Year: 2012

On May 1, 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened its gates to an expectant public eager to experience firsthand its architectural beauty, technological marvels, and vast array of cultural treasures gathered from all over the world. Among the most popular of the fair’s attractions was the Woman’s Building, a monumental exhibit hall filled with the products of women’s labor—including more than 8,000 volumes of writing by women. Right Here I See My Own Books examines the progress, content, and significance of this historic first effort to assemble a comprehensive library of women’s texts. By weaving together the behind-the-scenes story of the library’s formation and the stories between the covers of books on display, Wadsworth and Wiegand firmly situate the Woman’s Building Library within the historical context of the 1890s. Interdisciplinary in approach, their book demonstrates how this landmark collection helped consolidate and institutionalize women’s writing in conjunction with the burgeoning women’s movement and the professionalization of librarianship in late nineteenth-century America. Americans in this period debated a wide range of topics, including women’s rights, gender identity, racial politics, nationalism, regionalism, imperialism, and modernity. These debates permeated the cultural climate of the Columbian Exposition. Wadsworth and Wiegand’s book illuminates the range and complexity of American women’s responses to these issues within a public sphere to which the Woman’s Building provided unprecedented access.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Dedication Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. xi-xiv

Long before the term “networking” was created, women had worldwide networks that arguably were stronger than comparable ones today. With handwritten letters as their primary method of communication, feminists organized large international meetings from the 1870s onward.
The International Woman Suffrage Alliance, for example, met in Berlin, Copenhagen, Liverpool, London, Paris, and Stockholm, as well as in the United States. Its last major gathering was in Budapest in 1913, just before World War I. Soon after the war ended, women had voting rights in northern Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States—which brought an effective end to the organization. Ironically, in the Roaring Twenties, as communication became easier with telephones and radio, feminism was increasingly...


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pp. xv-xvii

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pp. 1-7

In A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (2009), Elaine Showalter reflects on the long absence of a comprehensive history of American women’s writing. (Hers is the first.) She posits several reasons for the extended delay, among them the daunting scope of a literary history encompassing nearly four hundred years of astonishing productivity. Similar obstacles impede the study of the Woman’s Building Library at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition: a collection of more than eight thousand texts written, illustrated, edited, or translated by women which (like Showalter’s history but international and multidisciplinary in scope) aimed to document a comprehensive chronology of women’s writing.1

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Chapter 1. By Invitation Only

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pp. 8-26

At 9:30 a.m. on July 21, 1893, members of the American Library Association (ALA) gathered for their seventh conference session in the Woman’s Building, within the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As guests of the Board of Lady Managers (BLM)—the group responsible for the design, construction, and exhibits of the marvelous building in which they were meeting—they sat in the middle of the rotunda on the building’s ground floor. Several BLM members mingled with their ALA guests. That the ALA selected Chicago for its 1893 conference was not surprising. For two years the exposition’s World’s Fair Auxiliary worked hard to convince hundreds of professional associations to choose the Columbian Exposition as a site for their annual conferences; the ALA committed in 1891. Not until June 26, 1893, however, did ALA president Melvil Dewey accept an...

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Chapter 2. Planning and Developing the Collection

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pp. 27-65

Exactly when Bertha Palmer and her colleagues fixed on the idea of devoting part of the Woman’s Building to a library of women’s texts is unclear. Once conceived, however, the library took shape and gained substance on a grand scale. Organizing and assembling this monumental collection was facilitated in part by women’s activities at prior national exhibitions. Still, the women involved in the Chicago World’s Fair were breaking new ground as an organizing body the federal government officially formed and sanctioned. In doing so, they appropriated and adapted structures of traditionally patriarchal institutions to accomplish an agenda focused on women’s interests. As we show in this chapter, the Woman’s Building Library developed from the ground up with a rapidity and sense of purpose that reflect the importance the Board...

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Chapter 3. Empire Building

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pp. 66-97

At the time of the October 21, 1892, dedication ceremony, Bertha Palmer knew that the New York delegation was working hard on the Woman’s Building Library. She was unaware of its specific goals, however, and could not have foreseen the enormous impact those goals would have on the library that would debut to hundreds of thousands of fairgoers six months later. In fact, New York’s contribution to the Woman’s Building Library would be especially influential for several reasons. First, the New York Board of Women Managers took the lead in collection development, as well as in furnishing and decorating the library. New York Women Managers successfully organized and coordinated the efforts of prominent women’s clubs statewide...

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Chapter 4. Grand Opening

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pp. 98-117

The World’s Columbian Exposition officially opened on May 1. The morning brought a driving rainstorm, but by noon the skies held only dark clouds. Almost 200,000 people—most dressed in their Sunday best—crowded onto the grounds. Dignitaries arrived by carriage. Bertha Palmer rode with the Duchess of Veragua, whose family were descendants of Columbus himself. Opening ceremonies took place in front of the Administration Building, where President Grover Cleveland and other VIPs followed an agenda carefully laid out for them.1 After Cleveland gave a brief address, he pressed the key to a 2,000-horsepower engine, and as a large choir sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in the background, fountains gushed and flags...

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Chapter 5. “To Read Her is a Liberal Education”

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pp. 118-149

“The successful bringing together of human bodies was as nothing in comparison with the marshaling of thought forces, and the main power of material profit which had made the whole great drama possible sank into insignificance in sight of what it had evoked.” So writes Candace Wheeler in her autobiography, Yesterdays in a Busy Life (1918). The Columbian Exposition, Wheeler explains, “might have been one merely of the commercial activities, but it was far more than that.” While the material products of business and technological progress received great fanfare, the congresses, which represented “the most advanced knowledge in all the various fields of science, morality, and religion,” brought about, in Wheeler’s assessment, “a focusing of the immaterial forces of progress.” To Wheeler, the relationship between matter and mind...

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Chapter 6. Ghosts and Shadows

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pp. 150-180

A library, wrote Annie Nathan Meyer, “may be a place overflowing with dynamic energy as up and doing as a modern business office.”1 The description accords well with the story of the Woman’s Building Library, with its panoply of committees, efficient staff of industrious librarians working on deadline, and the busy tide of fairgoers flowing continually across its orderly, well-lighted expanse. The “dynamic energy” of the Board of Lady Managers (BLM) and affiliated state boards pervades the record of the library’s development, while the correspondence of “Dewey’s girls” reflects the up-to-date professionalism of their cataloging and management...

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Chapter 7. “I Will Write for the People”

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pp. 181-201

In 1886, a year prior to the publication of Alice Morris Buckner’s Towards the Gulf, the Boston firm of Roberts Brothers brought out Atalanta in the South, “a Romance” (as it was subtitled) that contains striking thematic parallels to Buckner’s “Romance of Louisiana.” Written by Maud Howe Elliott—Columbian Woman writer, editor of Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building, and painter of frescoes in the mansion owned by Bertha and Potter Palmer—Atalanta in the South centers on the patrician society of economically depressed, racially divided New Orleans in the post–Civil War era.
Like Towards the Gulf, Atalanta in the South reveals the tragic consequences of interracial love in a society that forbids it by dramatizing the relationship between an upper-class white man of French extraction and a young woman who possesses “one burning drop of negro blood.”1 In each novel...

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pp. 202-213

The World’s Columbian Exposition officially ended on October 30, 1893, but the celebratory potential for closing ceremonies was significantly dampened by the assassination of Chicago’s mayor, Carter H. Harrison, two days earlier.1 During its six-month run, the fair clocked 27 million admissions. Although it was international in scope, a focused emphasis on American agriculture, industry, technology, and the arts (both popular and high) functioned on a grand scale as a rite of passage demonstrating that the United States had come of age. The fair itself exemplified a new urban-industrial order that thrived on corporate capitalism and mass consumption. It also occasioned a growing sense of nationalism, made manifest in the establishment of Columbus Day and the adoption of the Pledge of Allegiance...


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p. 215-215


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pp. 217-269


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pp. 271-284

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761915
E-ISBN-10: 1613761910
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499270
Print-ISBN-10: 155849927X

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 2 halftones
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Woman's Building (World's Columbian Exposition, 1893, Chicago, Ill.).
  • Literature -- Women authors -- Exhibitions.
  • Women authors -- Exhibitions.
  • Libraries -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 19th century.
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