The Cairns Collection of American Women Writers

A Conversation with Susan Barribeau

Editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Susan Barribeau, the Literary Collections Curator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, talks with Choice about the William B. Cairns Collection of American Women Writers. The Cairns exhibit, a physical collection that began in 1979, includes more than 10,000 titles by approximately 2,500 writers. The collection includes well-known editions by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Emily Dickinson, in addition to stories, periodicals, posters, diaries, and more from unpublished, lesser-known female writers.

How would you describe this archive to a perfect stranger?

Diary of Martha Frink

This is an intentional gathering of writing by American women including fiction, drama, poetry, essays, nonfiction, autobiography, life writing, correspondence, published, unpublished—all kinds of writing from all kinds of women, from Colonial America to the mid-twentieth century.

Who is the intended audience of the Cairns Collection? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

It’s a deep, interdisciplinary collection that is for anyone who can use it, whether they are doing advanced research on a particular author, looking at book design, seeking writing for anthologies, studying nineteenth century diary writing, or scouting for whatever is useful to them. It is Ranganathan’s Third Law of Library Science: “Every book its reader.” Undergraduates often especially respond to the material aspect of books and artifacts, so I like to bring out items of particular visual interest for them. It’s fun to really slow it down, look carefully, observe and question, and help them learn. I always encourage them to take photos with their ubiquitous phones.

I understand that this collection began with an endowment from William B. Cairns, a professor best known for his study of American Literature. How did it develop into a collection of exclusively women writers?

The Cairns endowment came with a generally stated and open intention, so there were possibilities to make a unique and concentrated special collection. Yvonne Schofer (the English humanities bibliographer at the time) and others identified a need, a gap. The plan was to create and promote research opportunities by bringing together the writings of women who, in many cases, had never been collected or had been “lost” from earlier collections. Having it housed in one place makes for a rich—and convenient—research experience.

How did the collection expand from only well-known authors (Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, etc.) into lesser-known writers? Was that a deliberate decision? Why?

Editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

It was a deliberate piece of the original collection policy to have two distinct parts, the first part consisting of the work of nine “established writers of major stature” as complete as possible with all available editions, manuscripts, biographies, and bibliographies—we have an enormous collection of editions of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, including many British, non-English language, and children’s editions.

The second part was focused on belles lettres by other American women writing in the same period, along with relevant secondary material. The “established writers” (e.g., Stowe, Dickinson, Alcott, Bradstreet, Perkins Gilman, Orne Jewett, Fuller, Chopin, and Wilkins Freeman) have significant collections/archives gathered in other institutions. Patterns of use, the book trade market, availability, and new research areas of interest drove revised collecting goals through the years. Librarians and faculty worked together to define this collection.

The collection began in the late ’70s and has been growing ever since. How do you manage its growth? How do you decide what makes it into the collection and what doesn’t? How does that decision impact the research function of this collection?

Esther Bailey travel diaries, 1897.

Anyone who curates a collection over time inevitably shapes it. I inherited an excellent, creatively built collection from Yvonne Schofer, who conceived it and curated it for 26 years. Part of what I do is continue the work of Yvonne and others who worked with her. It was challenging to find new things that we did not already have! Ten years ago when I began to manage it, I sought to expand the nonfiction holdings with more books and ephemera in areas like temperance, advice literature, religious writing, health guides, women entrepreneurs, working women’s writing, social justice—all of which had already been present in Cairns to some extent. I tend toward inclusion in my decision-making because who knows what will be interesting in 50 or 100 years? To add something of my own to Cairns, I began to collect manuscript diaries and journals by women. But collecting in some areas has gotten more expensive and competitive, so that will de facto inhibit growth.

Do you have a favorite writer or artifact?

Yes! But how to choose? A few years ago, we added the sketchbooks and a voluminous business correspondence of two sisters, Florence and Marjorie Hoopes, who were very prolific and successful illustrators of children’s readers and primers from the early to mid-twentieth century. The correspondence archive survived in the attic of their Philadelphia house, the current owner of which miraculously found us via a website posting about our acquisition of their sketchbooks. Favorite Cairns poets are Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley. Lately I’ve gotten interested in some authors of Westerns like Marah Ellis Ryan and B.M. Bower. I have some favorite diaries, of course. And I love the advice books—can always use more advice!

Diary of Emily Adeline Bailey, 1850.

While much of the collection focuses on literary contributions, it also includes a variety of fields of study such as “American and women’s studies, social and cultural history, education, children’s literature, and publishing history.” What is the value in including women’s perspectives and thoughts on an assortment of topics?

Diary of Emma Carll with a fabric swatch, 1875.

Women were often the driving force behind social movements such as abolition and temperance. They were preachers, psychics, botanists, health practitioners, illustrators, missionaries, reformers, clergy, sex workers, educators, and often their work has become invisible over time or completely unknown. A renewed interest in revising history to more accurately reflect what happened makes this material especially relevant. These women wrote about topics of current interest such as immigration and race, often in language that could be in today’s news.

The name of this collection seems intentional: American women writers, not women authors, and your website states that you’re currently interested in contributions of “manuscript diaries, journals, scrapbooks or correspondence.” Why is the collection moving towards a more open approach to female writers, instead of specifically published works by women?

This began as a belles lettres collection and has always evolved. Currently, there’s a lot of interest in collecting unique items and artifacts for special collections, which I’ve always had a personal interest in. The material objects, the handwriting, the spelling and grammar; the recording of daily chores and weather, of the food made and eaten; the noting of illness and deaths; and the chronicling of a more rural existence are increasingly of interest to researchers, students, genealogists, and historians. We have women who wrote not for publication, but for many other reasons.

On the collection’s website it states how numerous women writers are not fairly circulated in libraries and have subsequently “faded from public memory.” What is the significance of a collection that exists to unravel that result?

Diaries of Martha Frink, 1861.

Bringing things to light that have slipped out of favor can reveal much about the times in which they were created, as well as their audiences, their language, their publishers, and the writer’s motivations. Frequently, women writers of the past used pseudonyms, many of which were male. Some of the writing is surprisingly relevant to our current social and political times. Some of it is sentimental and not well written. But that it exists indicates that a reading public also existed and had the leisure and the literacy to read.

About the interviewee:

Susan Barribeau is the Literary Collections Curator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She manages the Cairns Collection, the Little Magazine Collection, and the Bemis-Flaherty Collection of Gay Men’s Poetry—all housed in the Special Collections department. She has been at Wisconsin-Madison since 1992.

Visit The William B. Cairns Collection of American Women Writers 1650-1940 at:

This interview was conducted by Sabrina Cofer. She is a Central Connecticut State University graduate and an editorial intern at Choice.