Baylor, Wellesley collaboration expands digital collection of handwritten Browning letters

MGN-Online
Friday, February 14, 2014 - 6:11pm

On Valentine’s Day two years ago, 573 of some of the most famous love letters ever written were brought into the digital age through a partnership between Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Baylor University in Texas.

This year and again on Valentine’s Day, the two institutions have collaborated to release an expanded collection of more than 4,000 digitized letters written by and to eminent Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, whose courtship and marriage made for one of the greatest literary romances ever known.

Through Baylor’s online Browning Letters project, scholars and students around the world have free online access to Wellesley’s collection of Browning Love Letters, as well as digitized versions of 1,050 Browning letters, owned and housed by Wellesley’s Margaret Clapp Library, and nearly 2,900 letters, which are held at Baylor’s Armstrong Browning Library (ABL).

“Access to the wealth of Victorian letters that support and enhance our growing number of Browning letters can only lead scholars, students and the general public to new and exciting discoveries,” said Rita S. Patteson, director and curator of manuscripts at Armstrong Browning Library. The Baylor special collections library is a renowned research center that houses the world’s largest collection of books, letters, works of art and other items related to the Brownings.

“Wellesley is thrilled to continue this important partnership with Baylor University. Making these Browning letters available online allows researchers far from Massachusetts and Texas access to rich research materials,” said Ian Graham, director of library collections at Wellesley College. “We hope that scholars find as much value working with these letters as we find in bringing them into the 21st century.”

The latest digitized correspondence sheds new light on the Brownings and their 19th century contemporaries.

Highlights from the latest digitized letters

May 19, 1843 – Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett (as the family identified itself at the time) writes to John Kenyon, Elizabeth’s distant cousin responsible for bringing the two poets together, thanking him for sending her a letter from Robert in which he praises her poem “The Dead Pan.” That letter from Browning was already housed at Baylor’s Armstrong Browning Library and, through the digitization project, was “reunited” with Elizabeth’s letter, held by Wellesley.

Sept. 16, 1843 - Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett writes to Mary Russell Mitford, the well-known writer to whom Elizabeth wrote the most letters for nearly two decades, dramatically recounting the dognapping and recovery of her pet Spaniel Flush.

Sept. 18, 1846 – Writing again to Ms. Mitford, Elizabeth Barrett Browning reveals that she has married Robert Browning.

April 30, 1849 – Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes to Anna Brownell Jameson, an art critic and writer and mutual friend of the Brownings before their courtship and marriage, delighting at the health of her son “Pen,” who was born in 1849 when Elizabeth was 43.

June 23, 1868 – Robert Browning writes to Lady Evelyn Stanhope Carnarvon, the first wife of Lord Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle, known today as the majestic location for the BBC television show “Downton Abbey.” Robert Browning was often a welcome visitor at the Carnarvon’s estate.

The digital collection includes images of letters and envelopes, as well as valuable metadata – descriptive information added by Baylor about each letter– including full transcriptions that allow all letters to be text searchable. Readers also can zoom in closely or rotate letters to see intricate details and examine the individual words, scribbles and marks from the writers’ hands.

“Most researchers want to see the letters in their original state,” said Darryl B. Stuhr, assistant director of the Digital Projects Group for Baylor Libraries. “These digitized letters are as authentic online as if you pulled them out of an envelope.”

“For any scholar who is not able to travel to Baylor or visit Wellesley to study their collections in person, it’s extraordinarily useful to be able to access these letters online, at no expense, and especially to have the full text and be able to search and find a particular subject they are interested in,” Patteson said.

Inspiring other collectors

The digitization of the additional Browning letters held by Baylor and Wellesley completes the third phase of the institutions’ goal to create the most important virtual Browning collection in the United States. Their successful collaboration has since inspired other universities and collectors to include their correspondence in the Browning Letters project, such as Balliol College and the Bodleian Library at the Oxford University, Ohio State University and the Hampshire Archives and Local Studies in England.

“Our goal is to create something virtually that is not likely to happen physically – bringing the Brownings’ correspondence together for use by scholars, undergraduate students or anyone inspired by their writings,” said Pattie Orr, vice president for information technology and dean of Baylor Libraries. “Our collaboration with Wellesley College has already encouraged other libraries and private collectors to digitize their Browning letters and add them to the collection. We look forward to having every known piece of Browning correspondence in this digital archive so that it may be preserved for future generations, available for academic research and enjoyed by those who love the Brownings.”

The Browning Letters project is one of 54 digital collections created and maintained by Baylor University Libraries. At this time, all of the Wellesley letters are online with full text. Baylor’s Digital Project Group will now begin phase four of the project, which will add full text to the remainder of the digitized letters. That effort should conclude by the end of May.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Stuhr said. “We have a lot of collections where we can make use of OCR (optical character recognition) by pushing the images through a server that recognizes the text for us. You can’t do that with these letters. It’s a completely manual process, and the fact that the full text is offered in this collection is wonderful.”

The Browning Letters project can be accessed at http://www.baylor.edu/lib/browningletters.

 

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