Collection Overview

The Cairns Collection at present numbers over 10,000 titles by some 2,500 writers. It is comprised of three parts:

  1. Published books in contemporary and modern editions and periodicals edited or authored by women writers
  2. Manuscripts and artifacts (correspondence, diaries, travel journals, posters, broadsides)
  3. Selected secondary and reference materials supporting the study of the primary sources and authors

A number of titles are scarce items rarely to be found in libraries or research institutions. Although its focus is essentially literary, the collection also contains selected writings by women on education, natural science, temperance, slavery, and women’s rights.

First and significant editions of printed works are sought in preference for the collection, supplemented by facsimile, reprint, and microform formats in cases where originals are not at present available.

History

The collection began in 1979 with an endowment provided by the estate of William B. Cairns, a pioneer in the study and teaching of American literature on the Madison campus at the turn of the century.

The Cairns Collection has evolved over time. Initially several established writers–Louisa May Alcott, Anne Bradstreet, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—were collected in full: books – in all textual and bibliographical variants, pamphlets, periodical contributions, along with secondary sources. Less well-known and obscure authors were also actively collected, mainly in their original editions; they are now collected as comprehensively as possible, and manuscripts are acquired whenever they can be found on the antiquarian book market.

The bulk of the collection is made up of works published in the second half of the 19th century and the first several decades of the 20th century. Many writers were phenomenally successful in their day, subsequently fading from public memory and inadequately represented in library collections. Their works are in the process of being rediscovered and reevaluated. The collection, with its predominant emphasis on literary works, is rich and resonant enough to support research in a variety of disciplines and fields of study: American studies and women’s studies, social and cultural history, education, children’s literature, and publishing history in all its aspects. The mix of well-known and obscure titles provides a cultural context in which the history of literature by American women, and American literature in general, can be located for objective evaluation.

Collection Highlights

Harriet Beecher Stowe/Uncle Tom’s Cabin collection: the Collection boasts hundreds of editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, including foreign editions, translations, adaptations for children, and piracies. A unique private collection of some 220 early British editions was added to the Collection several years ago, these editions being issued by no fewer than 28 British publishers outside of copyright regulations.

Several established writers—Louisa May Alcott, Anne Bradstreet, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—were collected as comprehensively as possible: books–in all textual and bibliographical variants, pamphlets, periodical contributions, along with secondary and reference sources.

The earliest and rarest book in the collection is Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse, published in 1650.

Development

Selection of materials is the responsibility of the Humanities Bibliographer in charge of English and American literature collections, and policy is developed in an advisory committee made up of English Department faculty, the Humanities Bibliographer, the Curator of Special Collections, and the Women’s Studies Librarian.

If you have material, fiction or non-fiction, by American women relevant to the Cairns Collection that you would like to offer for our consideration please contact Susan Barribeau, English Humanities Bibliographer. We are interested particularly in any manuscript diaries, journals, scrapbooks or correspondence.

Research

If you are a scholar or researcher and you wish to use the Cairns Collection for research purposes please contact either Special Collections or Susan Barribeau English Humanities Bibliographer with any questions you may have. The Friends of the Library group offers grants-in-aid to visiting scholars with application form and more information.

For visitors to the Madison campus there please see maps and travel information.