Digitizing The Mount

Jun 29, 2016

If cataloguing and scanning the 40 or so books and roughly 100 poems penned by famed writer Edith Wharton doesn’t seem tedious enough, how about flipping through the pages of her personal library? The total there — about 2,700 works. WAMC got a first-hand look at the effort to digitize Wharton’s collection.

The stench of early 20th century paper hits your nose when you walk into the small room at the top of Wharton’s former estate in Lenox, Massachusetts. Inside, boxes containing hundreds of books are stacked on shelves waiting to be scanned by Professor Sheila Liming of the University of North Dakota.

The images are being loaded onto a website so anyone can look at what Wharton read and writings by the Pulitzer Prize-winner that aren’t publically accessible. About 300 of 2,700 works are on the draft website with information describing the piece and metadata to make it searchable online. Liming’s inspiration for the project stemmed from an Edith Wharton Society fellowship to work at The Mount in Lenox in 2013.  

“The problem was I had to write an application in order to get that fellowship and I had no idea what to write the application about because I didn’t actually know what was in the library,” Liming said. “Nobody did. There is no way of going online and seeing what books are in the collection. There is no advertising for the collection itself. So I wrote an application blindly saying ‘Here are some things I think I’d like to look at that I think she owned.’ When I got here they were able to show me more in detail what things might be related to my research interests. That’s when I realized this place needs a digital catalogue.”  

Three years later, Liming has garnered about $30,000 in grants to support her work and that of assistants last summer.

“It’s slow but it’s coming,” said Liming.

Not all of the books will be fully scanned since some are already in the public domain. The focus is on those that are damaged, heavily annotated by Wharton and her unpublished writings.

“We have a full text scan of her copy of Alice in Wonderland which is something that she just totally read to pieces,” explained Liming.

“There is one book that did not belong to her, it was a book that she wrote of poems,” said Irene Goldman-Price who is on The Mount’s Board of Trustees and is a Wharton scholar. “She gave it to Morton Fullerton, her lover. Inside the fly leaf she inscribed a poem to him. There is no other copy of that poem anyone else in the world. There is just this handwritten note in Morton Fullerton copy. I find the books are really critical because I can read along with Edith Wharton. I can look at Matthew Arnold’s essays and his poetry and see what was meaningful to her and use that to analyze her own writing. The books are really a treasure trove of Wharton’s thinking — her intellectual autobiography.”

Flipping page by page Liming has discovered intimate traces of Wharton’s life such as bookmarks, postcards and even hair. Liming was recently working with Wharton’s second set of a Robert Louis Stevenson collection. It’s thought Wharton didn’t look at this set too much.

“I found a torn-off piece of a letter used as a bookmark in there,” Liming described. “On it there are two cancelled stamps from the Irish Republic from the year 1922. These stamps were only issued for one year because it was right after Ireland had become a free state. So the stamps themselves are somewhat interesting and valuable, but we can also pinpoint exactly when she was reading that book, when she got that letter and when she stuck those stamps in there.”

Liming says the database will also be another way to market The Mount and its pristine gardens to scholars and others.