“How do I love thee?” Let Us Digitize the Ways!

They were written between two of the most famous names in Victorian poetry, spanning a famous courtship, an elopement to Italy, and a widower’s final years. They were preserved by two institutions of higher education in the United States, one a private liberal arts college in the Northeast, the other a private Baptist university in Texas. And now, for the first time, they are available online in the same digital collection for the world to experience.

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are two of the most recognizable names in the world of poetry. Their work – like the partial line in our title, which comes from “Sonnets from the Portuguese” Number 43 by Elizabeth – is quoted by English majors and schoolchildren alike. Their storied romance is celebrated to this day as the uniting of two kindred souls brought together through mutual love of the poetic muse. And over the course of their lives, they wrote thousands of letters: to each other, to family members, to admirers and casual acquaintances alike.

Now, thanks to a collaboration between Baylor University’s Armstrong Browning Library and Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, we are excited to announce that 1,411 letters written by the Brownings are available online as a collection called The Browning Letters. This is the first time the digitized letters have been made available to the public via the Internet, and they represent the largest single digital repository of Browning correspondence in the world.

The Baylor-Wellesley Collaboration

The project came about through an interest expressed by Baylor’s Dean of Libraries and VP of Information Technology, Pattie Orr. Dean Orr, who came to Baylor after serving as director of user services at Wellesley, knew of the holdings of Browningiana at both institutions and initiated a conversation between the two that focused on creating a collaborative collection. After extensive talks between both parties, the agreement was made to include images of Wellesley’s letters in a digital collection created, hosted, and preserved at Baylor.

Wellesley’s major contribution to the collection – 573 letters – contain what are called the “Browning love letters,” a series of letters exchanged between the two poets from the earliest days of their courtship. In fact, the first letter written by Robert to Elizabeth, which begins with the line “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” is included in the collection, as is the final letter from their courtship, written by Elizabeth to Robert just prior to their embarkation to Italy in 1846. Wellesley submitted preservation copies of the letters to Baylor’s Digitization Projects Group, where staff and graduate students reformatted them into items for display and access in CONTENTdm, the software that houses and displays Baylor’s Digital Collections.

Elizabeth Barrett’s first letter to Robert Browning, January 11, 1845. Courtesy Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library, Special Collections via the Browning Letters Collection

Baylor’s Browningiana contribution to the collection has so far included more than 800 letters written by Robert Browning. Drawn from the Browning correspondence held at ABL, the letters represent almost one third of their total collection of approximately 2,800 letters. Rita S. Patteson, Director of Armstrong Browning Library, chose to begin the digitization of Baylor’s letters with the Robert Browning correspondence; the plan is to eventually digitize all of the letters at ABL, including those to Robert Browning and those written by and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The Digitization Projects Group’s Efforts

For the staff at the DPG, a great deal of time and effort has gone into image reformatting, digitization, data management, and online display configuration for the 1,411 letters available on day one of public release. More than 200 combined staff and graduate student hours have been dedicated to the project since December, and the DPG has committed to preserving 340GB of data for the first phase of the project, with an estimated 1.2TB of total file space necessary to finish the project.

With every image in the collection requiring a complex blend of digitization, image editing, metadata cataloging and quality control checks, the investment in this project has been substantial, but the importance of giving worldwide access to these invaluable resources is of great importance to Browning scholars and casual fans alike. The team of DPG staff, graduate assistants and undergraduate students for The Browning Letters project included:

  • Darryl Stuhr, Manager of Digitization Projects: Project lead
  • Allyson Riley, Digitization Technology Support Specialist: Digitization and data mgmt.
  • Eric Ames, Curator of Digital Collections: Contextual research and user interface
  • Austin Schneider, Library Information Specialist III: Metadata cataloging
  • Hannah Mason, Rachel Carson and Natalie Fiegel, graduate assistants: Digitization and metadata
  • Katy Poteat and Kayla Zollinger, undergraduate student workers: Metadata mgmt.

The project team envisions future partners in the Browning Letters collection, as there are an estimated 11,500 pieces of Browning correspondence scattered across dozens of institutions around the world. The processes and systems put in place by the DPG during this phase of the project will ensure future collaborators have a smooth integration of their materials into the growing digital collection.

Digitizing and making the letters available is a huge step in the process, but we hope to unveil additional functionality for this collection in the near future. For now, we invite you to take a moment to discover the timeless story of Robert and Elizabeth’s lives as revealed through their voluminous correspondence.

View The Browning Letters at www.baylor.edu/lib/browningletters and visit www.browninglibrary.org for more information on the Brownings, their works, and the Victorian era.

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