Guest Post: Locating Gender in the Stacks

Today’s guest poster is Aaron M. Brunmeier, a PhD student focusing on early American and Atlantic world history at Loyola University Chicago. Aaron is currently finishing up his role as the new media assistant for Common-place Journal and will work next on an AHRC-funded project on Atlantic world library history.

Network analysis for the 11 women and all the texts they borrowed from the NYSL from 1789 to 1792.

Network analysis for the 11 women and all the texts they borrowed from the NYSL from 1789 to 1792.

I must confess that when it comes to digital history, I am very much a novice. My introduction into this brave new world occurred last semester in Dr. Kyle Roberts’ undergraduate digital history class that I was able to take for grad credit at Loyola University Chicago. The end goal of the course was to create our own collaborative digital history project. I teamed up with two smart, hardworking, and creative undergrads whose backgrounds weren’t even in history and what we produced was Gender in the Stacks (which I should point out is currently a prototype and definitely a work-in-progress).

So, what is Gender in the Stacks? It is a digital history site that seeks to gain a better understanding of the gendered nature of library borrowing habits and reading consumption in New York City in the early republic. Specifically, the site investigates female readers and their literary choices in order to better understand how women were negotiating their position in the political and public spheres of New York during the early national period. We wanted to test Cathy N. Davidson’s thesis advanced in Revolution and the Word that women’s consumption of fiction challenged patriarchal orthodoxy by creating a space in which women could imagine different and more equitable political possibilities in a society that circumscribed their civil rights and their access to the political sphere. What, exactly, were these women reading? Did their reading preferences seek to challenge the prevailing gender norms of post-Revolutionary society–a society that limited their participation in the political and public spheres? Did they create their own imagined community of readership?

These questions are often asked but rarely answered in a comprehensive way, which is why a digital history site is a perfect medium through which to get some answers. Our group used the New York Society Library’s digitized circulation records for the years 1789 to 1792 with the goal of providing enhanced functionality and searchability to this site’s data. We employed the help of the open source software, Cytoscape, to conduct the network analyses on our site. Network analyses expose significant trends and correlations in a large data set that might otherwise be obscured from view without a visual representation of the data itself. Our site provides visual representations of what the 11 women (out of a total of over 500 individuals) represented in the NYSL circulation records read during this time period. Thus, such an exercise furnishes important insights on the gendered and political implications of reading habits in New York City in the early republic.

We only had about 5 weeks or so to conduct this whole project, so we have yet to fully run, let alone analyze, all of the data. Consequently, we can only offer limited inferences as to what the data means. Our preliminary analysis shows that women are, in fact, reading a variety of genres of books. Fiction has a strong representation in the data, especially sentimental novels and female advice books. Works such as Female Stability, Emmeline, and Romance and Real Life were some of the more popularly loaned books. But, the women were also reading history, philosophy, travel literature, and a whole host of other types of books. In our estimation, these women were of the middle and upper classes and most likely not representative of all women, not to mention we are dealing with a small sample size. There is a high degree of individual reading choices as well, so it is too early to say whether or not they constituted a reading community in New York or a broader imagined community with other women throughout the country. More information would be needed to make this claim at this point.

At a glance, what the data suggests to us, although we are cautious so as not to overstate the case, is that women were participating, perhaps on a more individualistic level, in the subversive quest to gain political inclusion through the novel. At the same time, however, women seem to have tried to gain access to other predominantly male worlds such as philosophy. Thus, it may be the case that Davidson did not go far enough in describing the multiple ways in which women attempted to breach the male public and political spheres through their consumption of fiction and their appropriation of male-dominated literary genres.

The neat thing about Gender in the Stacks, as we see it, is that it is basically, or rather some day will be, a “DIY” historical adventure. You set up the parameters for your own search. If you want to see the connections between all reading women, well, you can do that. If you want to compare 2 (or 3 or 4) women’s reading choices, well, you can do that too. If you want to see who was reading a particular book or particular books, well, you get the point. This allows teachers, students, and researchers the ability to craft their own analysis and draw their own conclusions from the data.

I would like to end by musing about the uses and benefits of digital history, especially for graduate students. It is important to reiterate that my group and I did not create an entirely functional website. What we have is a kernel of a project that can be expanded upon in the future–something that might prove to be good dissertation work, particularly for a second year PhD student who has this beast coming around the corner. Funding will be crucial in developing this project further, but I think one of the great things about digital history is that one’s project has the potential to stand out more than traditional projects simply based on its digital nature. The uses of and insights gained by digital history are perfect for graduate students who want to create something original while also gaining skill sets that are relevant on the job market and for future research. Casting old questions and sources in a new light sort of makes digital history the 21st century fountain of youth for the history profession. There are really no limits to what one can do with it. And so, I see it as imperative for us to gain knowledge and exposure to these new and exciting methodologies. The technology is out there–we just need to harness it.

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