Women in the White City

Lessons from the Woman’s Building Library at the Chicago World’s Fair

February 29, 2012


Next year will be the 120th anniversary of 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.

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 Wadsworth 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 Woman’s 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 gripping tale 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 Union identified 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 semisuccessful struggles of African-American women for representation in the Woman’s Building.

The authors also analyze the library as place. The Woman’s Building was designed, inside and out, entirely by women. The aesthetics of the library—its wood-paneled bookcases, leather-upholstered chairs, potted plants, and paintings and busts by women artists—simultaneously reflected the prevailing ideology of “separate spheres” that relegated women to domestic roles and the emerging notion of the educated, professional, and politically active “new woman.” Its homelike ambiance would serve as a model for countless public libraries in the following decades. Prefiguring libraries’ missions today as civic and cultural centers, the Woman’s Building Library was the site for numerous lectures, programs, and meetings during the course of the fair. In fact, the ALA Annual Conference of 1893 held a session there.

After the fair closed, plans by the Board of Lady Managers to build a permanent home for the collection were never realized. The card catalog vanished. Some books were returned to their lenders, while others found their way into libraries. More than a thousand volumes stayed in Chicago, where they were kept at the Chicago Public Library until being transferred in 1936 to Northwestern University Library in Evanston, Illinois. There they joined the Biblioteca Femina, a special collection of women’s writings augmented by books from the 1933 Century of Progress exposition and other sources. These were eventually integrated into both the general and special collections.

A forward-looking model

The account of the Woman’s Library—its creation fraught with conflict, its positive impact on the thousands of women and men who viewed it, its dismantling and dispersion when the fair ended—holds lessons for librarians in our own time. In just the same way, our choices today about acquisitions, organization, and services are creating a record that historians a century from now will mine to understand early 21st-century American life and women’s part in it.

What shape will that history take? Almost certainly it won’t be contained in a noncirculating collection of bound books in a finely furnished room. One forward-looking model for the documentation and sharing of American women’s history is already taking form in the National Women’s History Museum, to which Wadsworth and Wiegand are donating their royalties. As of early January, the NWHM’s directors and staff are pushing for congressional authorization to build the women’s museum a permanent home, designed by a woman architect, near the major national museums in Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, the museum has mounted nearly two dozen online exhibits, dealing with subjects that range from women as presidential candidates, reformers, and mothers to images of women on US postage stamps. The NWHM website also presents brief biographies, quotations, quizzes, web links, and a women’s suffrage timeline. Videos and an interactive exhibit on Progressive Era women indicate how far we’ve moved beyond static textual sources of information since 1893.

Beyond supporting efforts like the NWHM, how can we make sure works by and about our own generation of women are not lost? As the story of the Woman’s Building Library illustrates, and as archivists Kären Mason and Tanya Zanish-Belcher asserted in a 2007 article in Library Trends, the very existence of collections of women’s works empowers other women to “create, recreate, and own their memories.” Women’s collections large and small—from the impressive holdings of the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard to lovingly gathered local archives—deserve our donations of time, materials, and money. What’s more important, we can each contribute to a cultural shift toward valuing the contributions and legacies of all women and men.

Around the world, women have made encouraging progress toward political and economic equality, and the momentum remains strong. Have our libraries and archives kept pace? Consider: What else can we librarians do to ensure that women’s creative output and the artifacts that document our lives are preserved and accessible?

Let’s start with the story of our own profession. If your library is digitizing local resources, don’t overlook the library’s own documents. You’ll never know what meaning future library historians might find in those board minutes, staff newsletters, program fliers, procedure manuals, and scrapbooks. If you’re on the cusp of retirement or beyond, record an oral history of your career and deposit it at the last library where you worked, or somewhere else where it will be treasured. Did your reference department compile reading lists back in the early days of the women’s liberation movement? Like the catalog of the Woman’s Building Library, such book lists remind us of the topics that interested readers at a defining cultural moment; they’re also valuable evidence of library outreach in response to social change.

With 50 pages of footnotes, Right Here I See My Own Books may look like the final exhaustive study of the Woman’s Building Library, but it probably isn’t. Wadsworth and Wiegand assembled a database of the books in the collection, which they’ve made freely available. No doubt there’s more to be gleaned about women’s lives and the importance of libraries from this treasure trove of bibliographic data, and we can begin by reflecting on our history in order to envision a better future for the profession.

SUSAN E. SEARING is the library and information science librarian at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.


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