Right Here I See My Own Books

by Sarah Wadsworth and Wayne A. Weigand. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. 284 pp.. $28.95 (paper) ISBN 9781558499287.

Right Here I See My Own Books tells the story of the creation of Women’s Building Library at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the complex relationships of gender, race and class that contributed to the library collections. This is a work which complements the many existing works on the Exposition by expanding research into the print culture of the event and it serves as an important contribution to the study of women’s writing in the 19th century.

The Women’s Building Library contained over 8,000 volumes of works by women writers. The initial chapters of the book describe the emphasis of the Board of Lady Managers on the creation of a library and the means through which they conceived, organized, and established the collection. Although presented as a cohesive library, the collection actually represented smaller collections organized and contributed by groups around the world. This is an important distinction to make, especially in comparison to the ALA Model Library which was also on display during the exposition. Although it did not adhere to the tenants of professional librarianship, the Women’s Building Library represented inclusiveness not found in most 19th century libraries.

The contributions of the state and international committees varied wildly, both in the number of volumes contributed and the inclusiveness of their collections. Some states gathered unpublished papers by women into folios for contribution, while others relied only on published texts. Some states sought only the “best” or most representative while other states were comprehensive in their collections.

The authors at times describe the library as both a heterotopia and a “contact zone.” Both terms are accurate and useful in understanding the cultural impact of the of the Women’s Building Library. The library was bold in aspiring to collect women’s writing from around the world and representing women of all time periods, however, the Library, like the Exposition itself was temporary. Over the course of the Exposition’s six month run tens of thousands of people entered the library. Instead of a “snapshot or microcosm” the authors seek to interpret the library as a place where diverse and contradictory dynamics converged resulting in the extension of boundaries and new discoveries.

Chapters devoted to the analysis of library volumes offer interesting insights. Although it should be noted that visitors to the Library were not permitted to read or pull books off of the shelves. The authors have compiled a relational database of the contents of the library which serves as their source in highlighting some largely forgotten women’s texts. The authors make great use of primary sources throughout the book including the papers of Melvil Dewey at Columbia University and the Board of Lady Managers papers at the Chicago History Museum.

The Women’s Building Library serves as a great window for examining race, gender and culture in the 19th century. Although just a small piece of the Exposition itself, the authors successfully demonstrate its importance and the potential for future research.

Morgan Davis Gieringer, University of North Texas