Introducing…The Victorian Collection at the Armstrong Browning Library: A Baylor Libraries Digital Collection

The Armstrong Browning Library is pleased to announce the release of The Victorian Collection online. This new digital collection contains over 3,000 letters and manuscripts connected to prominent and lesser known British and American figures and complements the Armstrong Browning Library’s unparalleled collection of materials relating to the Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Below is a Q&A with Dr. Melinda Creech, Graduate Research Assistant at the Armstrong Browning Library and the driving force behind this digitization project. In the interview, Dr. Creech discusses how this project came about and highlights some of her favorite items in the collection.

The Armstrong Browning Library will celebrate the release of this new digital collection with short presentations by Dr. Creech and Darryl Stuhr, Associate Director, Digital Preservation Services, Library and Academic Technology Services, on Thursday, November 29 at 3:30 pm in the Armstrong Browning Library Lecture Hall. A reception will follow in the Mary Armstrong Seminar Room.

Melinda Creech

Melinda Creech organizes and describes letters from the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Collection

How did you become involved in the project to digitize the Victorian Collection and what role did you play in the project?

I first came to work at the Armstrong Browning Library in the summer of 2011. One of my first jobs was to transcribe the letters in the Kenyon/Frizell Album that had been purchased in June of that year. The album had one letter from Robert Browning to John Kenyon, and two letters from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to John Kenyon. John Kenyon, an English poet and philanthropist, was Elizabeth’s distant cousin and introduced her to Robert. He became their dear friend. However, in addition to these three letters, there were eighty-three other letters in the album. Several were from other notable authors of the nineteenth century: Dickens, Carlyle, and Thackeray. As I struggled to read the handwriting of so many correspondents, I began to realize that although they may not have had the notoriety of the Brownings, all these people had led interesting lives and had fascinating stories to tell.

I continued to pay attention to interesting Victorian letters that I ran across. This led to the creation of a several exhibits and blog posts, “Beyond the Brownings,” “Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers A Voice and a Face,” “Seeing Many Beautiful Things,” “They Asked for a Paper,” and “White Star Lines: Titanic Connections at the ABL.”

There was not a comprehensive list of the Victorian letters. I remember asking about how many Victorian letters were thought to be in the collection. When I was told about 500, I was surprised, based on my personal experience with the letters, and asked if I could  create a more comprehensive list of the Victorian letters, those not directly related to the Brownings. In the summer of 2014, I began the Victorian Letters Project. That summer Kara Long helped me to create a schema for collecting the metadata, and I spent the summer collecting the metadata from existing card catalogues, and continued adding letters discovered in albums, tipped into books, and hidden in other collections. In January of 2017, having collected all the metadata on almost 4000 letters, we began to make plans for digitizing the letters and manuscripts.

Sarah Rude

Sarah Rude digitizes letters from the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Collection at the Riley Digitization Center

Who were some of your collaborators and what roles did they play in making this digital collection possible?

Jennifer Borderud, new director of the ABL, Darryl Stuhr, Assistant Director for Digital Projects, Allison Riley, Digitization Coordinator, and Kara Long, Metadata and Catalog Librarian, and I finalized plans for digitizing the Victorian Letters Collection at the ABL in January, and the work began. The letters had to be properly identified, transcribed, if necessary, housed, and transported to the Riley Digitization Center. I was not involved in the process at the Digitization Center, which involved scanning the letters, editing and saving the images, processing the images, archiving them, recording all the processes, and returning the letters to the ABL. Once the letters were returned they had to be checked in and returned to their storage area. Many graduate assistants and paid staff, both at the ABL and the Riley Digitization Center, were instrumental in the completion of the project. I’m not sure I can recall everyone, but here are some who helped: Darryl Stuhr, Allyson Riley, Michael Galindo, Katherine MacKenzie, Sarah Rude, B.J. Thome, Evangeline Eilers, Josh Pittman, and Meagan Anthony.

What aspects of the project were the most rewarding?

The most rewarding part of the project was bringing to light letters and manuscripts that had been hidden for a long time. Finding the Dowden letters was thrilling. Mrs. Dowden had been a correspondent of the Brownings and of Dr. Armstrong. She lived in Ireland during a time of great unrest in the early part of the twentieth century. After corresponding with Dr. Armstrong for a while, she decided that her letters would be safer at the ABL. She sent the letters of her husband, Edward Dowden, first, and eventually sent her letters also to Dr. Armstrong, with the stipulation that they were only to be published after her death. The letters, almost 400, are filled with contemporary literary criticism. Prof. Dowden was the first English literature professor in Ireland. The letters had been safely stored in the vault at the ABL, and were undisturbed, I think, until I opened the drawer in 2016.

I often write to scholars all over the world with questions about letters, and those questions have, in some cases, opened new avenues of research for them. Sometimes scholars responded to blogs that I had written about the Victorian Letters, and a lively correspondence grew between us. Those correspondents included a Dickens scholar in Ireland, a science historian in Germany, a religious biographer in Florida, a maritime museum curator in Greenwich, a Purefoy-Fitzgerald scholar at the Bodleian, Wordsworth and Carlyle scholars in Grasmere, and a Hopkins scholar in York.

What aspects of the project were the most challenging?

Four thousand letters are a lot of letters. Just collecting the metadata on that many letters seems an almost impossible job for one person to do. I suppose one of the most frustrating moments came after all 1100 letters that had been housed in the filing cabinets in the vault had been prepared, sent to digitization, returned, and refiled, when I received word that the scanning machine at the digitization center had not been working properly, and all the letters would have to be returned and scanned again. That was pretty discouraging, but the rescanning took a lot less time the second time around.

Percy Florence Shelley Letter

Letter from Percy Florence Shelley to Tom Taylor, dated 11 January 1871, in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Collection

What item or items in the collection are the most interesting to you?

There have been many, many interesting stories associated with the letters. I remember how excited I was one afternoon as I was making my way through a bundle of letters that were related to the cartoonist Tom Taylor. Most of the letters were letters of condolences to his wife after his death. However among the letters I found one signed “Percy Shelley.” A quick bit of research revealed the letter was from the poet’s son, Percy Florence Shelley, and unlocked a fascinating story about the plays he produced in a theater in his own house. There was a letter from the artist and writer John Ruskin to his protégé, Lilias Trotter, who became a life-long missionary to Algeria. This was timely, because we were showing a film about Lilias Trotter’s life here at the ABL at the time. Her biographer was thrilled to find this bit of correspondence between Ruskin and Lilias. There are letters from writers, artists, musicians, scientists, explorers, clergy (even Baptists), statesmen, soldiers, and even cricket players. There are many letters related to scientists and explorers, artists and musicians, clergymen and politicians, and actors and stage managers. My hope is that digitizing these letters, which are outside the purview of the literary world of the ABL, will provide scientists, artists, musicians, and historians a new glance into the life of someone in their particular field for whom they have a passion.

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For more information on the Victorian Collection:

Literary figures represented in the Victorian Collection are covered in the blog series: Beyond the Brownings

 

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: Whittling Robert Browning

By Derham Groves, Ph.D., University of Melbourne, Australia

What do The Beatles and Robert Browning have in common? Read Dr. Derham Groves’s post below to find out.

Dr. Derham Groves at the ABL in 2015

Dr. Derham Groves at the ABL in 2015

Dr. Groves is a faculty member of Architecture, Building and Planning in the Melbourne School of Design at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He was a visiting scholar at the Armstrong Browning Library from December 2014 through January 2015. You can read about Dr. Groves’s experience researching at the Armstrong Browning Library here. You can also read about an Armstrong Browning Library-related project he assigned students in his 2015 Popular Architecture and Design course here.

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In semester two 2018, each of the 200-plus Master of Architecture students doing my Popular Architecture and Design course at the University of Melbourne (Australia) were each asked to whittle the head of a ‘pop culture icon’—i.e. an actor, an architect, an artist, a fictional character, a politician, a TV personality, a writer, etc. who I discussed or at least mentioned during my lectures—from a block of wood using only a pocket knife.

Students in Dr. Groves Popular Architecture and Design class at the University of Melbourne whittled heads of pop culture figures as a class assignment.

Whittled Heads on Display in Architecture Library, University of Melbourne. Students in Dr. Groves Popular Architecture and Design class at the University of Melbourne whittled heads of pop culture figures as a class assignment.

Being a former Armstrong Browning Library visiting scholar, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dr. A.J. Armstrong were on my list of pop culture icons. However, I ended up with no heads of Elizabeth or Dr. Armstrong and two of Robert. Oh well, two heads are better than one! I thought the friends of the Armstrong Browning Library might like to see them (along with a sampling of others).

None of the students had ever tried whittling before. (It’s more of an American pastime than an Australian one.) So I was pleasantly surprised by how good many of the heads were. But all of them—the good, the bad and the ugly—are currently on display in the Architecture Library at the University of Melbourne. What inspired this exercise—one of five the Popular Architecture and Design students completed this semester—was the cover of The Beatles’ 1967 LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, designed by Peter Blake (b. 1932) and Jan Haworth (b. 1942).

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Rhyme and Reform Symposium

A group of children in dirty clothing, appearing to be from the 19th century

On October 4-5, 2018, the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University jointly hosted “Rhyme and Reform” with the University of Strathclyde and the University of Manchester. This symposium recognized the 175thanniversary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Cry of the Children” through a series of events that fostered a critical dialogue between the poem and representations of labor by Victorian working-class authors.

A man gestures to a projector screen with two people on a video conference while an audience looks on.

Dr. Joshua King opens the “Orphans of earthly love” exhibit at the ABL. Connor Watkins and Sakina Haji, students who helped design the exhibit, join via video-conferencing.

The innovative symposium sought to bridge digital and physical spaces, with activities held at both the ABL and across the Atlantic at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Dr. Joshua King (Assoc. Prof. of English and ABL scholar in residence) and ABL Director Jennifer Borderud were the lead organizers for the ABL site, and Prof. Kirstie Blair (U of Strathclyde) and Dr. Mike Sanders (U of Manchester) were the lead organizers for the Glasgow site.

Video-conferencing allowed the two sites to interact and share events, but the “Rhyme and Reform” website also hosted an online version of the physical exhibition at the ABL and allowed participants anywhere in the world to live stream the presentations. This exhibition remains available through the website, where it is now joined by recordings of events from both symposium sites.  This will allow scholars, teachers, and students to engage with “Rhyme and Reform” long after its official end.  One teacher has already written a blog about her class’s experience of “Rhyme and Reform.”

Jennifer Reid, singing

Jennifer Reid sings a nineteenth-century working-class ballad

One of the highlights of “Rhyme and Reform” was an arresting performance of narrative and balladry by Jennifer Reid and Dr. Mike Sanders depicting nineteenth-century working-class life in Manchester, England. You can hear a 15-minute excerpt of the performance here.

The symposium also included engaging and insightful talks by top scholars including Prof. Marjorie Stone (Dalhousie U) and Prof. Beverly Taylor (UNC), both leading experts on EBB, and Prof. Florence Boos (U of Iowa), an authority on Victorian working-class women poets. You can listen to their talks on the symposium website here. Be sure explore the “Sessions” tab on the website to find recordings of the other talks from both sides of the Atlantic.

A group of scholars sit together participating in a workshop

Prof. Marjorie Stone, Prof. Linda Hughes, Prof. Florence Boos (Front L-R), Dr. Melinda Creech, and Rachel Kilgore (Back L-R) participate in the ABL COVE workshop on EBB’s poem.

Both the University of Strathclyde and ABL sites participated in workshops on digital scholarship and teaching using COVE. They used the suite of the digital tools to collaboratively annotate EBB’s “The Cry of the Children,” with the intention of ultimately building an online scholarly edition of the poem.

EBB's poem "The Cry of the Children" annotated with different colored text boxes

The working annotations of EBB’s poem following the ABL’s and University of Stathclyde’s COVE workshops.

And finally, “Rhyme and Reform” also included a physical exhibit on “The Cry of the Children” at the ABL created by Dr. Joshua King’s spring 2018 Victorian Poetry senior seminar: “Orphans of earthly love: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Protest for Working Children.” The exhibition also appears online on the symposium website alongside an exhibition of working-class poetry from “Piston, Pen & Press,” an AHRC-funded project directed by Prof. Kirstie Blair and Dr. Mike Sanders on the literary cultures of industrial workers in the North of England and Scotland. Click here to visit the two online exhibitions and consider how their juxtaposition invites you to compare EBB’s “The Cry of the Children” with working-class verse.

Two juxtaposed photos of two boys working at looms in factories. One is from the present and one from the 19th century. Next to the photos is a QR code accompanied by the question "Can we hear The Cry of the Children in our world?

These two young boys working looms in factories—one in the nineteenth century and one in the present—appeared in the physical exhibit at the ABL. Viewers were encouraged to engage in the exhibit by scanning the QR code to “hear” echoes of “The Cry of the Children” in the present day.

The dual-site, digitally connected nature of this symposium allowed international collaboration and participation with limited travel and thus a reduced economic and environmental impact. Further, it opened access to the events across the world. You can see some of interactions among participants by viewing the hashtag #RhymeandReform on Twitter. Over just the two days, the symposium website received nearly 200 visitors from seven countries. Some of these included groups of faculty and students, such as the self-organized viewing by the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. Thus, we estimate “Rhyme and Reform” engaged around 260 participants, the audience size of an annual conference for a mid-sized scholarly association.

A man and woman view a museum exhibit

Visitors view rare materials from the ABL at the “Orphans of earthly love” exhibit.

We encourage you to visit the “Rhyme and Reform” website yourself to take part in the symposium. And if you’re in the Waco, TX area, be sure to visit the physical exhibition at the Armstrong Browning Library, which will be on display on the main floor through April 1, 2019.