Baylor, Wellesley Project Brings Handwritten Browning Love Letters Into the Digital Age

February 14, 2012

Legendary correspondence between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning -- broken seals, envelopes, crossed-out handwriting and all -- is released online on Valentine's Day

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On Valentine's Day, some of the most famous love letters ever written will be viewable in their original handwritten form, thanks to the joint efforts of Wellesley College (Massachusetts) and Baylor University (Texas).

The 573 letters of the poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, which are owned and housed by Wellesley's Margaret Clapp Library, have been digitized through a partnership with Baylor University and are now available online through Baylor Libraries' digital collection called the Browning Letters project. The collaborative task provides unprecedented free online access to these celebrated letters for scholars and romantics alike--and may inspire readers to opt for pen and paper over text messages and emails this Valentine's Day.

In addition to Wellesley's letters, Baylor has digitized more than 800 items from its own collection of Browning correspondence - about 2,800 letters written by or to the Brownings - which are held at Baylor's renowned Armstrong Browning Library. Those letters also are available to scholars and the public through the Browning Letters project.

"Baylor and Wellesley are committed as libraries to public access," said Pattie Orr, vice president for information technology and dean of libraries at Baylor. "In the past, only scholars or graduate students would have the resources to travel to Baylor or Wellesley to see these rare documents. By digitizing and mounting the letters in the Baylor repository, junior high and high school students, undergraduates and graduate students, scholars and anyone who loves poetry or romance across the entire world can spend as much time as they wish with the letters."

19th Century Letters Go Digital

Former Wellesley College President Caroline Hazard purchased the Browning courtship letters in 1929 and gave them to the Wellesley Library, where they have remained, along with their original boxes, ever since. Though transcriptions of the correspondence have been published, high-resolution images of the original letters and their envelopes have never before been available. Scholars interested in studying the original letters would need to travel to Wellesley to view the letters in person.

Thanks to a generous gift, Wellesley hired 42-Line, a digital imaging company based in Oakland, Calif., to digitize the letters on-site in Special Collections at the Wellesley College Library. The team worked for two weeks, meticulously handling and photographing each of the letters and envelopes, which are more than 165 years old.

However, Wellesley needed a university partner with significant infrastructure and experience in place to handle such a large digital collection. And just as Robert found Elizabeth, Wellesley discovered the perfect colleague in Baylor University.

The Baylor University Libraries have created and maintain some 30 digital collections, and is also home to Armstrong Browning Library, a research center that houses the world's largest collection of books, letters, works of art and other items related to the Brownings.

To bring the Browning courtship letters into the digital age, Baylor's Digitization Projects Group transformed 1,723 raw digital images received from Wellesley into more than 4,200 edited page and envelope images available on the Browning Letters website. The group used its own high-resolution planetary scanner to digitize 842 of the more than 2,800 letters written either by or to the Brownings, which are held at Armstrong Browning Library.

"Most researchers want to see the letters in their original state," Stuhr said. "These digitized letters are as authentic online as if you pulled them out of an envelope."

With the Browning Letters project now online, scholars and the public will be able to see the complete collection of letters and envelopes. The technology allows readers to zoom in closely or rotate letters to see intricate details and examine the individual words, scribbles and marks from the poets' hands.

In addition, each page contains valuable metadata - historical information about each letter added by Baylor - including full transcriptions that allow all Wellesley's Browning love letters to be full text searchable.

The huge project, which continues to add more letters, needed about 340 gigabytes to store the digital preservation files of Wellesley and Baylor letters. Stuhr estimates they will need about 1.2 terabytes of storage space once his group digitizes all of the Brownings' correspondence.

"As The Browning Letters project progresses, it is likely that poetical manuscripts will be digitized as well," said Rita S. Patteson, Director and Curator of Manuscripts at Armstrong Browning Library. "The availability of all Browning materials will preserve the items and make them easily accessible to scholars and Browning enthusiasts."

"Scholars will always want to see the real thing and the Baylor/Wellesley digitization project will preserve the letters by reducing the amount they must be handled," Orr said "We want these letters to last as long as possible, but all physical objects deteriorate. Through careful digitization and archival standards/storage we hope these letters will last virtually forever."

The Love Letters

The love letters, written almost daily from January 1845 to September 1846, offer a thrilling tale of intellectual sympathy, mutual admiration and a daring elopement. The correspondence began with a letter addressed to "dear Miss Barrett" and continued until a week after their marriage, ending with Elizabeth's note to Robert as they arranged to leave England and travel to Italy. The letters are beloved by romantics because the story--of a secret romance realized with a happy ending--is considered the greatest literary romance of all time and by many to be better than fiction. Scholars value the letters because they offer a record of the creative genius of both poets, who wrote some of their best work during the time of their courtship.

According to Barrett Browning scholar Sandra Donaldson, (University of North Dakota) editor of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Pickering & Chatto), the Baylor-Wellesley collaboration offers readers an accessible collection of the letters that will reveal how the Browning correspondence was an intellectual courtship before there was any idea of marriage. The project opens up conversations among scholars about what the poets actually wrote--but also offers a rare glimpse at the development of the Brownings' relationship.

"Having the love letters digitized is especially wonderful - to see that very first letter that Robert wrote to her, never having met Elizabeth but knowing of her through a mutual friend, and more importantly through her poetry," Donaldson said. "We get the gestalt, the effect of the page, our seeing how the page as a physical thing struck her eyes--and was used by him to pace himself as he was thinking through what to say and how to say it."

Patteson looks forward to the day when all letters housed in Baylor's Armstrong Browning Library are digitized and available to the public.

"Having this first portion of Baylor's letters available for study is just a teaser for the invaluable information that is still to come," Patteson said. "Access to the wealth of Victorian letters that support and enhance our growing number of Browning letters can only lead scholars, students and the general public to new and exciting discoveries."

Unprecedented Access to the Brownings' Work

The digitization of the love letters is the first phase of Wellesley's and Baylor's goal to create the most important virtual Browning collection in the United States.

With that phase completed, the two institutions will work to digitize the correspondence between the Brownings and leading artists and authors, held at Baylor, Wellesley and elsewhere.

Baylor's collection of Browning letters, held at Armstrong Browning Library, includes more than 2,800 letters written either by or to Robert Browning or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with an additional 5,600 letters written by or to Browning family members and other prominent British and American figures.

By using Baylor's existing infrastructure, all digitized Browning materials owned by Wellesley and Baylor will be made available to researchers throughout the world at no cost.

About Baylor University

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions.

About Wellesley College

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,400 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 75 countries.

About the Baylor University Libraries

The Baylor University Libraries connect people with ideas in support of teaching, learning, scholarship and academic distinction through its Central Libraries and special collections libraries - Armstrong Browning Library, the Electronic Library, The Texas Collection and the W.R. Poage Legislative Library.

Media contacts: Lori Fogleman, director of media communications, (254) 710-6275
Sofiya Cabalquinto, Wellesley College, 781-283-3321
Anne Yu, 781-283-3201, Wellesley College