The Stainforth: A Brief Introduction to a Book That I Hope to Spend More Time With

STAINFORTH, FRANCIS JOHN, d. 1866. Catalogue [in a later hand] of the library of female authors of the Rev. J. Fr. Stainforth. [S.l., s.n., n.d.: before 1866]. 4to, 373 leaves. Spine title: Catalogue of Stainforth’s Library. WPRP 290.

Two weeks ago, I “met” the Stainforth, and my life hasn’t been the same since. Debbie Hollis, my wonderful boss and Assoc. Professor/Faculty Director of Special Collections at Norlin Library, had this book all set up in a cradle for me when I arrived in the reading room to start my weekly work on the Women Poets of the Romantic Period (WPRP) collection. Apparently, I’m late to the table in knowing about “the Stainforth” (that’s how Hollis refers to it) — but now that we’ve met, I understand the importance of this work. And I will add that this book is currently, as in *right now*, being scanned so that digital images of the handwritten pages will be available, open-access, for anyone to use, study, write about, or peruse for pleasure. As soon as it’s available, I will post a link to the electronic work.

I should add that for this 2011-2012 academic year, I’m a researcher for the WPRP collection at CU and will be reading, curating an in-house exhibit for the BWWC 2012 conference (June 7-10), and also curating a digital exhibit with the collection. I look forward to my WPRP research hours every week and have already learned a great deal from Special Collections staff and from the collection itself.

The Stainforth is a hand-written catalog that Rev. Stainforth created and that represents his library as it grew until his death. Special Collections’ information sheet that is included with the volume provides some helpful background for this book:

“Stainforth, for his time, was a most unusual book collector: his interest lay in the works of British and American female poets and dramatists. By the time of his death in 1866, he had amassed more than 6,000 works. The books are listed alphabetically on the rectos, and with additions on the facing pages. Stainforth’s collection provides what must be the single most comprehensive bibliographical record of English-speaking female poets and dramatists up to 1866. He owned remarkably large representations of many writers, and many celebrated rarities. . . . Not content with simply acquiring as many different titles as he could obtain, Stainforth meticulously went about procuring every edition of every title; of Mrs. Hemans’ National lyrics, to take just one example, he owned 9 editions published in London, Dublin, Philadelphia and Paris. It seems likely that he lived part of his life in America, as it would have been impossible to have amassed so many American books without actually spending time there. The books were dispersed over six days in July 1867 by Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge, who described the collection as an ‘extraordinary library, unique of its kind… This celebrated and unrivalled series of the poetical compositions of British and American female writers, exhibiting in a complete form the growth and progress of the genius of woman in the department of poetry, has been selected, with great zeal, industry, and toil, with a view to rescue our fair poetesses from oblivion… The completest collection that could possibly be formed… an assemblage without precedent… unique, as no other of similar pretensions is known.’ The British Museum, acting through the bookseller Boone, was a major buyer; the British Library copy of the sale catalogue is fully marked with their purchases and the prices they paid.”

Why am I so excited about the Stainforth? Mostly because I have a lot of questions about it.

It’s a database of Romantic women writers and their works, but how complete of a database is this? It even looks like a database the way that it is so neatly formatted in columns on the page. And I’m a fool for textual data! If his catalog really does represent “the single most comprehensive bibliographical record of English-speaking female poets and dramatists up to 1866,” it would be amazing to process that data and learn more about authorship, publishing, distribution of works in various genres, and the circulation of works by women writers in particular. And even if the catalog turns out to be less comprehensive than advertised, it will be interesting to discover what categories of works Stainforth privileges by including them in his collection, and of course, what works didn’t make the cut. I also wonder who had access to his collection, and if his collection had any bearing upon readership of certain works or authors?

The organization of the book is fascinating. Stainforth organized his catalog alphabetically by genre, NOT by shelf-mark (these are included in the left-most column on each page). So, I can just see him (or his assistant) running around his library floors to gather titles and put his books in a new order just for this book. (Which leads me to wonder: how were his books organized on the shelf?) And as I flipped all the way through the book admiring his elegant penmanship and browsing his listings, I had an Indiana Jones moment:

About 3/4 of the way through the volume, his holdings entries stop, followed by some blank pages. After the blank pages, the writing appears upside-down. If you flip the book over to its back cover, you find that Stainforth starts a second kind of notebook here: it’s his acquisitions wish list, and it’s also organized by genre. His wish list consist of approx 870 entries for books he was looking for, and he crossed out about half of them as he acquired them for his collection.

How long did his cataloging project take? And wasn’t it a bit risky to keep the wish list for such a vast archive in the same book as the holdings list — what if he needed more pages for the holdings than the book contained? Did he regularly lend out any of these books, as in a circulating library? Is his collection partial to certain years, publishers, authors, or genres? If he did have a collection of male authors (and I would imagine that he did), why create a separate catalog of women authors–why not list them all in a master bibliography?

I don’t have many answers, just questions at this point. Right now, I’m using the Stainforth as a point of departure for a collaborative project that interrogates the intersection of materiality and metadata in 18th- and 19th-century digital texts. My only conclusion is that I am grateful for the suggestion of the Special Collections staff to look at this work, and for their initiative in scanning it. And for a Christmas present, can we please have it keyed? 🙂