Notes on the Economics of Library Economy

Stamps. From Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau ...: A Handbook of Library and Office ... Library Bureau, 1890. Web. Page 49
Stamps. From Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau: A Handbook of Library and Office. Library Bureau, 1890. Internet Archive. Web. 13 Dec. 2016. Page 49

While in Middlemarch, published serially in 1871 and 1872, dear Dorothea suffered great “annoyance at being twitted with her ignorance of political economy, that never-explained science which was thrust as an extinguisher over all her lights” (Eliot 42) there were many other economies being developed in the 1870s which would rely on women as employees and proselytizers. I will leave domestic economy to the side for the nonce — it’s the economy of knowledge storage devices and spelling reform that has my interest.

I have completely fallen for the late-century American passion for efficiency experts, so once again will, at the risk of taxing Victorian Studies readers, offer up a post that features more American cousins rather than British ones. I had touched earlier in this blog on the invention of the vertical file. I’d like to pick up where I left off with a few remarks about the company the marketed the vertical file, the Library Bureau and the Bureau’s founder, that great promoter of “library economy,” Melvil Dewey (Classification 5). I’ve been dipping of late into Dewey’s “Librarianship as a Profession for College-Bred Women”, published by the Library Bureau, while Dewey was Columbia University’s chief librarian. Continue reading “Notes on the Economics of Library Economy”

Our Calculating Cousins

or How the Gendered Wage Gap and Child Labour Killed the British Computer Industry before it Even Started*

All I ever want to do these days is talk about late-Victorian offices (much to the chagrin of my partner and students, I’m sure), but I have already laid bare my soul on the subject of vertical files and press books on this blog, so thought I might stray a bit into a frank eye-to-eye chat about the American influence on late 19thC British census taking and the history of computing (it’s these frank eye-to-eye chats on the history punchcards, ink wells, and clerk’s stools that, I think, try my students so much, but bear with me. So far they have shown me great latitude and patience and I hope you will too. I will let you know in future posts if they ever reach their breaking point). I have a keen interest in the social history of computing, and get real pleasure from ferreting out the points where computing might have taken a left turn or a right one, giving us some other version of the colonial, gendered, or racialized state of computing that we live with today.

Hollerith Machines. IBM
Hollerith Machine. IBM
One of these pinch points was the development and commercialization of census taking technology. The British were census-takers extraordinaire. The Royal Statistical Society was formed in 1834 and they had a centralized General Register Office by 1837, led by novelist Thomas Henry Lister, who, alongside statistician William Farr, guided the 1841 census. The British continued to use Farr’s labour intensive system until 1911 when the British census was mechanized. The mechanization process was not a British affair (Campbell-Kelly). In 1894 former superintendent of the US Census Office, Robert P. Porter and his former employee Continue reading “Our Calculating Cousins”

Literary Tourism

In her obituary for Dinah Mulock Craik, Margaret Oliphant wrote how pleased the author had been to learn that American tourists were flocking to Tewkesbury, a medieval market town in Gloucestershire, “not so much to see the town and abbey, as to identify the scenery of John Halifax”.*  As postcards commemorating the sites of the novel attest, this literary tourism continued well into the twentieth century.  As late as 1977, Dorothy Eagle pointed tourists to the haunts and homes of the Author of John Halifax in The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles.

Continue reading “Literary Tourism”

“Foundress of Nothing?”: Report from the annual Victorian Studies Association of Ontario Conference

Rubens, Teresa of Avila's Vision of the Dove, c.1614

Many of us from The Floating Academy attended the annual Victorian Studies Association of Ontario conference this weekend. The conference’s theme — “Manipulation: Victorian Variations on Hands, Handling, and Underhanded Behaviour” — was taken up in various illuminating ways by the day’s speakers (including our own Gregory Brophy) but one key thread that emerged through all the papers was a critical identification of hands with agency. In addressing this concept of agency, or, in some cases, control (as in the case of Thackeray’s puppetmaster, which Peter Capuano discussed in his interesting analysis of the relationship between text and image in Vanity Fair), the day’s speakers often highlighted the ambiguity inherent in the concept of agency.

I found James Eli Adams’s talk, “The Dead Hand: George Eliot and the Uses of Inheritance” particularly compelling in this regard because he added a new layer to my understanding of the image of Dorothea Brooke as a “foundress of nothing” in Middlemarch:

“Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering on some long-recognizable deed” (4). Continue reading ““Foundress of Nothing?”: Report from the annual Victorian Studies Association of Ontario Conference”

British Women Writer’s Conference


I just got back from the British Women Writer’s Conference in Columbus, Ohio, and I thought I’d take a second in the lull before the storm as the semester winds down to post about it.

I have long intended to go to this conference, but this was the first year I made it.  There are a few things that are truly great about it:

  1. It is completely organized by graduate students, which I didn’t know before.  This tradition stems from the conference’s beginnings as a grass roots newsletter about women writers sent around by graduate students almost twenty years ago. Amazing. Continue reading “British Women Writer’s Conference”

The Other Dickens

I’ve just finished my holiday reading, and not a moment too soon since classes start tomorrow.  In addition to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the new Jonathan Franzen novel, which I read while travelling, I read Lillian Nayder’s new biography of Catherine Dickens, The Other Dickens (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2010), which was  too fat to take on the plane.

I was completely compelled by Nayder’s portrait of Catherine as a competent wife and loving mother, counter to Dickens’s accusations that she was so far incapable of raising her children and managing a household that her sister Georgina had to take over.  One challenge of writing this biography seems to have been how many of Catherine’s letters were destroyed.  Nayder inventively solves this problem by drawing on banking records and legal documents–showing that Catherine, not Georgina, was running the  household until very near her separation from Dickens in 1858, as the large cheques drawn in her name suggest, and extrapolating Catherine’s tender feelings about her family from the sentimental objects she bequeathed them in her will.  Continue reading “The Other Dickens”

Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring

James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, heavyweight champion from 1892 to 1897.  Image is in the public domain.
"Gentleman Jim" Corbett
I’ve been working through the various models of masculinity on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. One of the Exposition’s most popular entertainments (alongside the first Ferris wheel, Buffalo Bill’s Rough Riders, and movable sidewalks) was a daily boxing demonstration by heavyweight champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Corbett used multiple venues –the ring, the stage, the press, film– in his attempt to use popular science to make the strong male body signify as genteel. Continue reading “Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring”