The “Rare Book Working Group” (RBWG) at Princeton University Library began its second year of programming by exploring the topic of “Her Book” on October 25, 2018. Eric White, Curator of Rare Books, and Gabriel Swift, Reference Librarian for Special Collections, brought out more than 50 books from the 17th and 18th centuries, each inscribed by an early female owner. The RBWG participants, which included graduate students, faculty, and library staff, discussed the value and implications of this provenance information as historical evidence, and recorded the data for entry into the library’s online catalog — which historically has overlooked much of this kind of evidence.
White and Swift introduced the “Her Book” workshop with examples of women’s early achievements in book production and collecting. These included a copy of De viris illustribus, printed in Florence in 1478 by the Dominican nuns at San Jacopo di Ripoli; book illustrations by Suor Isabella Picini, a prolific engraver at the Franciscan convent of Santa Croce in Venice at the beginning of the 18th century; an unsigned 17th-century English embroidered dos-a dos binding, very probably made by a woman; Lady Caroline Lamb’s presentation copy of her rare Verses from Glenarvon (1819), hand-embellished with her portrait by Eliza Jones (above); and the 1819 auction catalogue of the library of Anne-Thérèse-Philippine, Comtesse d’Yve (1738–1814) of Brussels, whose rich and diverse collection included a copy of the Gutenberg Bible in its original binding (now at Eton College).
For the longer “workshop” portion of the two-hour session, participants examined a selection of books from the Robert H. Taylor Collection, signed (and occasionally annotated) by the Englishwomen who owned them. These included six titles inscribed “Frances Wolfreston hor bouk [her book],” which Swift brought out in order to highlight the possibilities of reconstructing women’s libraries and reading habits; a scholarly project on this little-known 17th-century owner, led by Sarah Lindenbaum, who first located Princeton’s specimens, is already well under way. See: https://franceswolfrestonhorbouks.com/
The participants also examined Jane Franklin Mecom’s copy of her brother Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and observations on electricity, made at Philadelphia in America (1769), featured in Jill Lepore’s exemplary study, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013).
In addition to deciphering names (such as Jane Austen’s) written in books, the RBWG also explored larger patterns of book ownership and the scholarly value of mining a broad corpus of evidence. Faculty participant Seth Perry agreed that RBWG workshops offer an excellent opportunity to approach broader questions and find new avenues for research that arise from a rich but often hidden historical record.
Ownership inscriptions in the selected books include:
Jane Austen, April 24th 1794
Fanny Anne Burney, from her Grandfather
[Lady] M[ary] Cowper
Mary Tolson her book [wife of the author, Rev. Frances Tolson]
Margaret Clarke her Book […] Elizabeth Harris
Anne Thomas 173[?] (trimmed; with printed bookplate: “Ann Thomas No. 104”)
Ann Savil Shepherd 1780
Rhoda Spaulding Gaffrey
Jane De L’Angle
Mrs. Mary[?] Leo Feild her Book 1720
Mrs. Audley given to William D[—?] 1833
Ann Goodkind her Book February 2[?]th 1761
Elizabeth Greyon given me by my Aunt Alice Abdy, November the 24 1682
To Mrs. Rose of Kilravock, with Mr. [Robert] Burns’s best compliments
Mrs. Eliza Symonds
Mary Luth[?] (trimmed)
Catherine Fleminge Book
Francis Glossop the gift of his Aunt Catherine Gibbs
Elisabeth Dickenson […] Elisabeth Richardson […] Hannah Dickenson […] Mary
Abigail Burby given by Sir Tho Tyrell
Ann Piggot 1700
Euphime Proctor 1769 [gilt leather label]
For the complete RBWG worksheet, see: Her Book – Sheet1
Eric White and Gabriel Swift wish to thank student assistants Jessica Terekhov, Rosamond van Wingerden, and Conner Johnson for their help compiling and organizing the “Her Book” RBWG workshop.