Project Showcase: This Beautiful Sisterhood of Books
Recovery Hub project showcases synthesize materials submitted by the project team and reports from peer reviewers to highlight the interventions of peer reviewed projects from a variety of viewpoints.
Project Team Materials
- Katherine Adams, co-director
- Jacquelyne Thoni Howard, co-director
- Susan Tucker, consultant
This Beautiful Sisterhood of Books is a virtual recreation of the Women’s Literary Department from the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair. The original library was overseen by the writer Maud Howe and appeared as part of the exposition’s Women’s Department, directed by Maud’s famous mother, Julia Ward Howe. It comprised nearly 1,400 items collected by lady delegates from 31 participating states and donated by Maud’s publishing contacts. Despite Maud’s effort to keep the physical collection intact after the exposition closed, the books soon scattered and disappeared. Our project has created a digitized database based on the Literary Department catalog found in Julia Ward Howe’s 1884 Women’s Department report to Congress. The database is fully searchable by author, state, genre, and keyword, with most items linked to a digitized version of the edition that would have been available in 1884. The site also provides general background information on the New Orleans World’s Fair, the Women’s Department, and the Literary Department as it pertains to library history. Although the database itself is static, we envision This Beautiful Sisterhood as a dynamic and collaborative space that will continue to grow by hosting original research, particularly from undergraduate students. Our goal is to publish student-authored “exhibit labels” for every text and author, along with longer-form research that explores contexts relating to the collection and the circumstances that shaped its creation and reception in 1884. The research we have collected thus far takes the traditional form of written text, but we are eager to begin working with other formats such as photo essays and approaches to digital storytelling such as digital mapping.
The current version of This Beautiful Sisterhood has a fully uploaded, tagged, and searchable catalog; a menu of related long-form research; a menu of options for participating in the project; and 17 samples of student research on the following individual books and authors:
Following the recent completion of a first full draft of the database and website, our team of undergraduate developers, supported in partnership by Newcomb Institute and the Connolly Alexander Institute for Data Science, has completed our own technical peer review.
We hope soon to add several new features, including a blog to which visitors can contribute, a search bar, and a site map; and we plan to start working with instructors of early US women’s writing and culture at other academic institutions sometime in AY 2023-24. In Spring 2023, students in co-director Kate Adams’s graduate seminar, Black Women Writers of the Long 19th-Century, researched, designed, and created an exhibit focusing on Black women at the New Orleans World’s Fair who sought to integrate the Woman’s Department – rather than exhibiting in the Colored Department alongside Black men – but were turned away by director Julia Ward Howe. This exhibit, now being edited, will feature pieces about individual writers and artists, including Fannie Barrier Williams; exposition coverage in the Black press; the racialized rhetoric of the Woman’s Department; and the academic and cultural politics of literary recovery.
Reviewed by Sarah Wadsworth and Nicole C. Livengood
Summary of the Project’s Place in the Humanities
This Beautiful Sisterhood of Books reconstitutes, contextualizes, and provides digital access to a historic library of texts by women gathered for and displayed at the Women’s Department of the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans. It represents an “alliance of literary history and book history” as it uses bibliography to reconstitute a heretofore “lost” archive (Luener 652) that showcases genre, texts, and authors from across the United States, many of whom have been neglected or bypassed in the last few decades of feminist literary recovery. In addition to offering a critical intervention into women’s literature and literary history, This Beautiful Sisterhood of Books contributes to a number of other fields, including gender studies, history, library history, book history, and the history of world’s fairs. It links to digitized texts in the editions that would have been available at the time of the exposition. In addition to providing access to the contents of the texts, the project enhances the listing of each item in the library with original research about the item, with an exhibition label (similar to a digital form of card-catalog card) with a selection of page images and brief essay about the item. In addition, the project aims to provide larger contexts for interpreting this library and its contents, including research about the exposition, its Woman’s Department, and the women who were instrumental in bringing the library into existence, in particular Maud Howe, Julia Ward Howe, and their collaborators.
Summary of the Project’s Use of Technology
The project uses technology to provide the history and contents of this library through a single widely accessible and easy-to-use portal, and to enable users to search and filter for various kinds of content, using author names, keywords, and genres. While the project uses WordPress as its digital platform, its main use of technology is via the project’s database, which is browsable according to genre, title, author, and state, as well as searchable via a search bar. Each catalog entry offers additional information and (when available) stable URLs that take users to digitized copies of the books via HathiTrust, Archive.org, or notes about how to access e-texts (for example, through subscription databases). Additionally, each catalog entry includes “exhibit labels” with links regarding genre, author, and state, so that, for example, if a reader wants to see what other texts fall under the category of “Textbook” they can click the “Textbook” link and access other books classified by that genre. The project also includes a menu that directs users to short context-focused essays; links to primary sources, such as the original Women’s Department catalog; and student work based on This Beautiful Sisterhood. The student projects include digital images of the texts under discussion, allowing readers to page through the visuals as well as read the students’ exhibit labels and interpretations. The project also invites readers to participate in the creation of new content using readily available technology.
The project thus serves a valuable function in educating and training students in the use of web-based technologies while encouraging general users to develop the basic technological skills necessary to contribute to the project. Further, the digital nature of the project has the potential to mitigate the challenges of recovery that scholars including Michelle Burnham, Brigitte Fielder, and Sharan M. Harris articulate—in short, works must remain accessible and “in print,” as well as be written about and taught, for their recovery to be viable.
Other Important Contributions of the Project
The project’s commitment to inclusivity and equity is evident at all levels. The Project Directors have proactively sought to engage women and BIPOC interns and graduate students, and to credit and compensate their labor. In terms of content, the Directors recognize the limitations of their original archive, which excluded contributions by Black Women. They have thoughtfully addressed this exclusion in their organization, search term, and future plans. For example, users can search the website using the keyword “Race,” which includes an explanation that books with this tag are “Works with significant focus on racialized identities and bodies, and racial injustice.” This category includes 17 titles, among them novels and stories by white women such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Martineau, and Helen Hunt Jackson. There are two biographies of African Americans (Sojourner Truth and Benjamin Banneker) and one of a Native American (Chief Joseph). Further, they’ve articulated a goal to focus future work on representing the Black community’s responses to the exhibits and plan to feature research on the World’s Fair’s Colored Exhibit. That Kate Adams’ graduate seminar on Black Women Writers have begun to tackle some of that work is another exciting example of This Beautiful Sisterhood of Books’ inclusivity, as well as speaking to the intellectual sustainability of the project. It deliberately engages and seeks contributions in such a way that it is an organic “archive-in-progress” that will evolve as it engages general users as well as students in an ongoing, original research project of national / transatlantic and historical significance. The project thus aims to invite collaborations and “foster a community of scholars and readers working together to reconstruct an extraordinary—and all but forgotten—episode from women’s literary and cultural history.”