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Collection Spans Five Centuries of Women’s History

Library acquires Virginia Woolf's desk, other items in influential private collection

Virginia Woolf's writing desk, painted by her nephew Quentin Bell.
Virginia Woolf's writing desk, painted by her nephew Quentin Bell.

The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University has acquired one of the largest and most significant private collections on women’s history, documenting the work and intellectual contributions of women from the Renaissance to the modern era.

Carefully assembled over 45 years by noted bibliophile, activist and collector Lisa Unger Baskin, the collection includes more than 8,600 rare books and thousands of manuscripts, journals, ephemera and artifacts, including author Virginia Woolf’s writing desk.

Among the works are many well-known monuments of women’s history and literature, as well as lesser-known works produced by female scholars, printers, publishers, scientists, artists and political activists. Taken together, they comprise a mosaic of the ways women have been productive, creative, and socially engaged over more than 500 years. The collection will become a part of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture within the Rubenstein Library.

Sojourner Truth

“We are honored to be the institutional home of this spectacular collection,” said Deborah Jakubs, Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs. “Lisa Baskin’s lifelong passion for collecting and preserving women’s history resonates deeply with us at Duke. Her approach to collection building is a kind of activism itself, and in that respect it shares much in common with our own. Throughout our history, the Duke University Libraries have strived to build collections that document lives and achievements that would otherwise be hidden from history.”

The materials range in date from a 1240 manuscript documenting a respite home for women in Italy to a large collection of letters and manuscripts by the 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman. Most materials were created between the mid-15th and mid-20th centuries. Other highlights include correspondence 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 for Narrative of Sojourner Truth,  written with Stowe’s own hand; decorated bindings by the celebrated turn-of-the-century British binders Sarah Prideaux, Katharine Adams and Sybil Pye; and Woolf’s writing desk, which the author designed herself.

“Lisa Baskin’s remarkable collection aligns perfectly with the strengths and character of the Rubenstein Library,” said Naomi Nelson, associate university librarian and director of the Rubenstein Library. “We pride ourselves on our signature collections in women’s history and culture, African American history, the history of medicine, human rights, documentary arts, advertising and economics -- all areas Lisa has attended to in building her collection. We look forward to collaborating with her as we add to the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection and share it with the public. ”

Baskin and her late husband, the artist Leonard Baskin, were both avid book collectors. Leonard also founded The Gehenna Press, one of the preeminent American private presses of the 20th century. Lisa Unger Baskin began collecting materials on women’s history in the 1960s after attending Cornell University. She is a member of the Grolier Club, the oldest American society for bibliophiles.

“I am delighted that my collection will be available to students, scholars and the community at Duke University, a great teaching and research institution,” Baskin said. “Because of Duke’s powerful commitment to the central role of libraries, and digitization in teaching, it is clear to me that my collection will be an integral part of the university in the coming years and long into the future. I trust that this new and exciting life for my books and manuscripts will help to transform and enlarge the notion of what history is about, deeply reflecting my own interests.”

Materials from the collection will be available to researchers once they have been cataloged. Some items will be on display in the renovated Rubenstein Library when it reopens to the public at the end of August 2015.

For more information about the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection click here.

Below, letters and photos from the Emma Goldman Collection.

Emma Goldman collection