by Anna Clark, Master’s Student in History and Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant
When I began working as a graduate assistant at the Armstrong Browning Library last August, I had recently moved to Texas from Michigan and just started my first semester of graduate school in the Baylor History M.A. program. I was excited to begin my assistantship at the library since my area of study is nineteenth century transatlantic relations between the United States and Great Britain.
When I first stepped into the cool library out of the blazing Texas heat, I felt like I was whisked back to England. As an undergraduate student, I studied abroad for a summer at the University of Oxford and had spent countless hours in the Bodleian Library. The Armstrong Browning Library with its stained glass windows, quiet study rooms, soaring ceilings, marble columns, shelves of old books, and cases of artifacts belongs in Europe. Dr. Armstrong and the generous benefactors who first envisioned the library and those who continue to give have truly made this a sanctuary for those who love the Brownings, their poetry, and beauty in both the written word and the spaces in which it is shared.
The office room I have been assigned to work in as a graduate assistant has its own stained glass windows with excerpts from Robert Browning’s poems and houses bookcases filled with rare 19th century books. The third floor hallway where most of the library staff work overlooks the Foyer of Meditation, and I often stop by the balcony to peek down on that marble room with its twilight stained glass windows. On the days the choir practices in the foyer, their music resounds through the building. It is truly a lovely place to work, and I can see how Dr. Armstrong’s vision to inspire another talent at Baylor to the renown of the Brownings may easily come true in such a place.
The tasks I have been assigned by our curator, Laura French, this last semester have been very rewarding. Some of the projects I took on included writing articles and interviewing Katrina Gallegos, the curator of our current exhibit Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in “Fifine at the Fair,” for the library blog; taking inventory of artwork in one of the ABL’s storage rooms; reading through book catalogues to suggest new items that the library may interested in acquiring; helping Laura, our curator, organize and set up books for English classes that have sessions at the library; researching old newspaper archives to find information for a researcher who had a query about President Truman’s visit to Baylor University in 1947; and curating an exhibit on Harriet Martineau, one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s correspondents and a successful writer in her own right, to complement Dr. Deborah A. Logan’s address here at the library on Benefactor’s Day.
All of these projects have been immensely interesting and have appealed to my love of history. Through my assigned research and work at the library, I have personally handled first editions and letters of Robert and Elizabeth Browning and many of their contemporaries such as Lord Tennyson, Dante and Christina Rossetti, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Carlyle, and Harriet Martineau to name a few. Some of these artifacts are nearly two-hundred years old, and it often surprises me to think of their age and all the famous people who touched them; they are concrete links to the past, and I think it is wonderful thing that students, professors, and staff at Baylor University have the opportunity to study and examine such historical things.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes…”
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
I am not encouraging visitors to the ABL take off their shoes, but I think there is something to be said for taking the time to slow down and to appreciate beauty in the simple things. I think that is what Dr. Armstrong envisioned for this grand library. Take the time from the busyness of daily life to study the stained glass windows in the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Salon, stand in the Cloister of the Clasped Hands, look up at the lofty gold leaf ceiling, reflect on the beautiful love Robert and Elizabeth shared for one another, sit in the shaded garden outside, discover the magic of the Brownings’ poetry, appreciate the work and the vision that the people of Baylor had to bring this space to life, and take some of this beauty out into the world with you when you leave. Most of us will not become the great poet of talent that Dr. Armstrong envisioned being inspired by this place, but we can all be inspired and inspire others to see the heaven in the world around us. I personally believe the Armstrong Browning Library is one of those places on earth crammed with heaven.
I have truly enjoyed my first semester working at the Armstrong Browning and would like to thank Laura, Jennifer, Christi, Carolina, Rachel, and the other staff at the library who have made my experience an enjoyable one. I look forward to delving into more research and learning more about the Brownings and their Victorian contemporaries in our beautiful library.