"What a Library Means to a Woman"

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Sheila Liming. What a Library Means to a Woman: Edith Wharton and the Will to Collect Books. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2020. Paperback, 280p, $27.00 (ISBN 978-1-5179-0704-4). Reviewed by Maureen Maryanski.

Sheila Liming’s What a Library Means to a Woman: Edith Wharton and the Will to Collect Books is a well-researched, thoughtfully argued, and absorbing study of the surviving volumes of Wharton’s library that currently reside at her former estate, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. The story of Wharton’s library is not just a story, but many stories, and many lives, swirling around and within these 2,700-plus books. Presented in this book are multiple readings of Wharton’s library that overlap and inform each other to create a stunning analysis that enriches the dialogue surrounding libraries and collections, their lives and afterlives.

Liming, an associate professor at Champlain College, began her journey with Wharton’s library as a graduate student in 2013 with a visit to The Mount. Since 2015 she has been the project manager of the EdithWhartonLibrary.org digitization and description project with the support of The Mount board and assistance of students at the University of North Dakota, where she was an assistant professor of English from 2014–2020. Liming’s physical interactions and intimacy with the library, coupled with an analysis of Wharton’s fiction, form the foundation of Liming’s approach and argument for the centrality of Wharton’s library as the site, and remaining evidence, of this author’s creation of herself, or self-making.

Liming’s methodology unites multiple streams of study, and her argument insists that readers consider these streams as an interconnected whole; taken separately they are thought-provoking, taken collectively they are insightful. Succinctly described in her introduction, the study “offers an exploration of the many meanings of a library as a collection, and it reads a specific library collection through the dual methodological lenses of object-oriented methodologies and literary history” (16). Added to this object-based approach is an analysis of form, derived from New Formalism, and the importance found in historical materialism of not just focusing on things, but also in how they are connected, or networked. In short, Liming not only examines the personal connection between the library and those who have engaged or contributed to it, most significantly Wharton, but she also discusses how the assemblage of the collection and its contents reflect the social milieu, status, and networks of Wharton as an upper class white American women at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Liming also places Wharton’s fiction and library in conversation with each other, allowing her to explore this time in print culture history from Wharton’s dual perspectives as an author (a creator of books) and a consumer (a collector of a library). Liming’s precise explanation of her methodology throughout the introduction lays the groundwork for the following four chapters, both their individual lenses of analyzing the library (as space, hoard, network, and tomb) and how all these approaches intersect, thus complicating, expanding, and deepening our understanding of library collections, their compilers, and their meanings. The clarity with which she considers each facet of Wharton’s library, and uses it to expand out in different intellectual directions, is admirable and creates an accessible, engaging, and enjoyable volume.

Wharton’s library as the site, both physical and metaphorical, of her education as a self-described auto-didact is a pervasive theme of Liming’s study. Why Wharton collected her books, and the value she ascribed to them, went beyond acquiring knowledge to the creation of her narrative about herself. As Liming states, “she was trying to forge the material proof of her own existence. The tragedy is that, in the end, it proved impermanent” (67). This impermanence of physical proof of existence is evidenced by the afterlife of Wharton’s library: its subsequent division, the loss of half its numbers during the World War II bombings of London, and the years of research and work by bookseller George Ramsden to reconstruct the remnants, are fitting reminders to the living of the transiency of life. A powerful reflection flows throughout the book on this ephemeral nature of life and the ways in which people try to ensure a legacy, some structure or order to what they leave behind.

In viewing a library as a legacy, an attempted continuation of life, it becomes a site of interaction between the living and the dead, the present and the past, as Liming discusses most fully in her fourth chapter, “The Library as Tomb.” Though different from a personal library, what Liming writes applies to the work of libraries and archives as spaces that “provide the living opportunities for interfacing, and intermingling with the dead” (139). Liming reminds us that libraries are not just full of physical objects, but they also contain “material residue of what has been reduced to abstraction” (110), evidence of lives lived, and thus are repositories of human life. Liming’s discussion in this chapter focuses primarily on the connection between readers in the present and authors and/or past readers. However, one could argue that the lives of readers and authors are not the only ones contained within books and libraries; this reasoning could extend to include all who have made an impression on a book. It is not just the text that can create a meeting with the past. Each person who made paper or vellum, set type or wrote script, engraved a plate or illuminated a miniature, crafted a binding, wrote an inscription, an ownership mark, a note in the margin, or a doodle, is contained within the physical object. We may not ever know all their names, but they are there. Each book or manuscript contains multitudes.

By focusing her discussion on this interplay between life and death, Liming rightly centers people. At the forefront is Wharton, but many more people are contained within the library as well: her family, her contemporaries, her lover, her heirs, and all those who have interacted with the collection in its afterlife: those who have bought, sold, reconstructed, organized, catalogued, described, digitized, and felt an attachment to the volumes. She could not tell the full story of what Wharton’s library means without this last group of people, nor could she tell it without discussing historic preservation, cultural heritage professionals, and their value in our society. It was refreshing to read an intentional and precise discussion in Liming’s introduction about the “real labor of real human beings” in libraries and archives, including her own labor in the attic of The Mount (20). It is easy for people to forget the labor of these spaces, that it requires time, human effort, and financial means to preserve and care for collections. That this reality is integral to Liming’s methodology is made stronger by her statement that “the preservation of history matters, that preservationist efforts are not equally legitimized or supported by the state and its various financial appendages, and that what gets preserved is therefore nothing if not political” (22). Liming presents a moving testament to those who do this work and advocates for their recognition and ongoing support of cultural heritage institutions and historic preservation.

Liming’s study focuses on a personal library (a collection of books) returning to a personal library (the space originally constructed to house these books). This story is different than those of collections residing in special collections libraries, which are separated from their original contexts and creators and located in spaces that are not neutral, adding another layer of meaning. The questions Liming raises throughout her study, and the methodology she employs, offer a way to re-examine these collections and our institutional libraries as a whole, to approach again the lives of the authors, readers, collectors, and the generations of curators, librarians, archivists, and catalogers who have engaged and interacted with these physical objects, and to weave these crisscrossing narratives together into a beautiful tapestry of meaning for a library. In many ways this book is a love letter to historic preservation done in all types of cultural heritage institutions. But preservation is always balanced with access, the ongoing tension of special collections. As Liming succinctly states, “a library means access—to history, to future realms, to spaces populated by other spaces and other people, to information and stores of knowledge, to tradition, to the dead.” (9) What do we do with the inheritance of all the libraries from the dead? How do we learn their meanings? And in the end, where do we add new meaning?

Maureen Maryanski, Lilly Library, Indiana University