How would you describe the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection to a perfect stranger?
The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection was one of the largest collections of women’s history material in private hands before it came to the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University in April 2015. A transformative body of material documenting women at work, the collection was assembled over 45 years by noted bibliophile, activist, and collector Lisa Unger Baskin. Comprised of about 16,000 items in all, the core of the collection is U.S. and European materials from the Early Modern period to the mid-20th century including over 12,000 published items, more than 250 distinct manuscript collections, and an extensive array of artifacts from a British suffrage tea set—the most complete known of its kind—to Virginia Woolf’s writing desk.
The online exhibit’s introduction states that the LUB Collection “makes the true breadth of women’s contributions visible.” How does this collection challenge the disparagement of women’s work and shine a light on women’s contributions and accomplishments? How do literary materials fit into a collection about women’s work?
The Lisa Unger Baskin collection offers visible and tangible evidence of the labors and achievements of women from over five centuries and every walk of life—printers, publishers, scientists, sweatshop workers, artists, activists, scholars, craftswomen, pieceworkers, midwives, businesswomen, and others—and challenges our understanding of women’s history and contributions. In other words, the collection clearly documents the fact that societies were built upon the labor of women at least as much as they have been popularly assumed to be created by men.
Lisa Unger Baskin emphasized women’s social history in her collecting, but she did acquire extraordinary works related to women’s literature. These volumes, manuscripts, and artifacts speak to the work and craft of writing and to the networks and connections between creative women. Thus, the literary materials in the collection offer windows into the work of creating, publishing, and promoting literary arts (and other artistic expression) of women.
“The work and care of one woman to assemble a transformative collection of this magnitude and depth is a stunning achievement and contribution that is changing the way we think about and understand women’s history.”
Lisa Unger Baskin spent 45 years collecting over 16,000 pieces for the LUB Collection. What did the research and collection process entail? What is the significance of the collection being formed individually by a woman?
Lisa Unger Baskin and her late husband, the artist Leonard Baskin, shared a dedication to book collecting. Baskin began collecting materials on women’s history in the 1960s, inspired and informed by her experience in the women’s and Civil Rights movements. She is a member of the Grolier Club, the oldest American society of bibliophiles. Baskin worked with rare materials sellers mainly based in the U.S. and UK and also cultivated relationships with scholars, librarians, and fellow collectors, enhancing their work and her own. The work and care of one woman to assemble a transformative collection of this magnitude and depth is a stunning achievement and contribution that is changing the way we think about and understand women’s history.
Who is the LUB Collection’s intended audience? How do you see the collection being used in and outside of academia?
The collection is intended for everyone. The exhibitions offered at Duke and the Grolier Club in New York City in 2019 and 2020 illustrate this, as people of all ages, identities, and backgrounds visited both exhibits in record numbers. The digital exhibit continues to receive visitors from around the world. In addition to the many scholarly and pedagogical uses that have been made of materials from the collection, it has been the focus of a range of activities such as school field trips, community group events, journalistic works, social media presentations, and more.
The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection includes thousands of books, manuscripts and artifacts. Are there any items in particular that you feel represent the collection’s core mission?
It’s hard to narrow down to just a few items, but here are some standout items from the digital exhibit (object descriptions taken from the digital exhibit website):
“The earliest documented printing by women is from the press at the Convent of San Jacopo de Ripoli in Tuscany. The nuns set type, sewed folios, and provided financial backing for the press. The collection includes two copies of this book. The first is trimmed and rubricated, with the rubrication likely done by the nuns. The second is untrimmed with copious marginalia. The manicule in the second copy points insistently to the entry for the mythic Pope Joan and proclaims ‘papa femina’ (female pope).”
“Feminist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth [called Isabella Baumfree when she was enslaved and before she changed her name] was one of the towering figures of nineteenth-century America. She was born into slavery in 1797 on a rural farm in Ulster County, New York. At age thirty, she…[escaped]…[and in] 1842, she came under the influence of a self-styled prophet, Robert Matthews, who established his ‘Kingdom of Matthias’ on an estate in Sing Sing, New York…Isabella was attracted by Matthias’ spiritualism and the promise of egalitarianism, which was unfulfilled. The community disbanded after a trial for murder and sexual impropriety.” This pamphlet includes her testimony for that trial. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843.
“Writer, printer, and feminist Virginia Woolf was at the center of the Bloomsbury Group during the first half of the twentieth century and was one of the leading figures of modernist literature. Woolf commissioned this oak writing desk while she was in her teens and used it until she was around thirty years old. She specifically requested a standing desk. In 1929, Woolf gave the desk to her nephew, Quentin Bell, an artist and member of the Bloomsbury Group…Bell painted Cleo, the muse of history, on the sloped top in the style of the Omega Workshops.”
Can you speak to the importance of focusing on the lives of “ordinary” women? How has this focus shaped the breadth of the LUB Collection and the types of artifacts collected?
The collection includes many well-known monuments of women’s history and arts such as correspondence and published works by legendary American and English suffragists and abolitionists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emmeline Pankhurst and Lucretia Mott; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s publicity blurb, written in her own hand, for Sojourner Truth’s Narrative (and Truth’s Narrative itself); and English writer Virginia Woolf’s writing desk, which she designed herself. These iconic objects are complemented and enhanced by an enormous number of lesser-known works produced by female scholars, printers, publishers, laborers, scientists, authors, artists, political activists and others. Taken together, they document the myriad ways that women have been productive, creative, and socially engaged for more than 500 years. The magnitude of the collection in terms of the timeframe, topics, and the women who are documented is powerful evidence of Lisa Unger Baskin’s assertion that “The unifying thread is that women have always been productive and working people and this history essentially has been hidden.”
I understand that Lisa Unger Baskin made a concerted effort to collect works from Black women, highlighting their contributions to the anti-slavery and abolition movements. What role did Baskin play in efforts to document Black women and their accomplishments?
Lisa Unger Baskin began collecting half a century ago when few collectors, sellers of rare materials, or institutions focused on women’s history or the history of BIPOC communities. She worked with tenacity and creativity to find materials documenting women and BIPOC communities. Partly because of her sustained commitment and those of other long-term individual and institutional collectors of women’s and BIPOC history, more material has become available to scholars, artists, activists, students, and other researchers.
Much of the work in this collection was informed by Lisa Unger Baskin’s personal politics and reflects numerous instances of women’s political engagement throughout history. How does the act of archiving a work like the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection function as a form of activism?
Baskin assembled a collection that, taken together, offers a window into five centuries of women’s largely unknown, misunderstood, and often misappropriated contributions to society. By bringing together materials from across the centuries, Baskin reveals what has been hidden—that women have long pursued a startling range of careers and vocations and that through their work they have supported themselves, their families, and the causes they believed in. Preserving this collection in a library, especially a women’s history library like the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, where it complements existing collections and can be used by scholars, students, and members of the public, is part of the critical work of making the historical record a more accurate account of human history thereby upending patriarchal notions of human achievement.
Can you describe the programming you offered to promote and celebrate the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection? How did your array of outreach efforts maximize engagement? How did your partnership with the Grolier Club further contribute to the collection’s reach?
In 2019, in order to share the collection with as wide a public as possible, library staff, in collaboration with Lisa Unger Baskin, created the largest exhibit to be offered by the Duke University Libraries along with a specially designed docent program to share it as democratically as possible; a critically acclaimed exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York City; a book-length catalog; and an extensive digital exhibit which now includes most of the features in the catalog along with features possible only in an online environment. The public programming was also extensive. The main events included an exhibit opening at Duke in February 2019 that featured talks by Lisa Unger Baskin and others; a Symposium on Women Across the Disciplines at Duke in April 2019; an exhibit opening event at the Grolier Club in December of 2019; and a Symposium on Women in the Book Arts in January 2020. The exhibits and events were covered in a wide range of publications from the New York Times to National Geographic and Japan Times. The staff of the Grolier Club were dedicated and creative partners in this work. Given that the club is the oldest bibliophilic organization in the U.S. and is located in New York City, the collection inevitably became known to a wonderfully large and diverse audience. One of the most magical parts of the show at the Grolier Club was the enormous banner on the outside of the club that featured an image of Phillis Wheatley from Baskin’s copy of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: Printed for A. Bell, 1773). Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book and the first American woman to seek to earn a living from her writings. The banner could be seen from Central Park.
The catalogue accompanying the LUB Collection—developed and written entirely by women—includes supplementary essays on the collection. In your essay, you emphasize the importance of reframing our idea of women’s historical and current accomplishments. How do both the catalogue and the collection as a whole inform the present and contribute to other exhibits on women and race? What work is yet to be done?
The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection—and, by extension the catalog and digital exhibit—aligns well with the strengths and character of collections throughout the Rubenstein Library, especially with our signature collections in women’s history, African American history, the history of medicine, advertising and marketing, and the history of economics—all areas Baskin has attended to in building her collection. Works from the collection are routinely used in exhibitions and teaching in all of these areas by staff across the Rubenstein Library along with our faculty and student partners and researchers from around the world. There is always work to be done to build collections documenting women and BIPOC communities so that the historical record accurately reflects the full range of human experience. We are deeply committed to this goal and the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection has certainly contributed to it enormously.
About the interviewee:
Laura Micham is the Director of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture and Curator of the Gender and Sexuality History Collections in Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. She helps to acquire, preserve, and promote the use of a wide range of rare and unique materials related to women, gender, and sexuality. Laura’s particular interests include feminist activism and theory, reproductive health and rights, and the history and culture of LGBTQ communities.