Naomi L. Nelson

The first exhibition catalogue of the Guild of Women Binders. It was produced by Karslake and Company for the Guild’s second exhibition, held 1 December 1898–30 January 1899. (view fullsize version)

Women's work. The phrase usually conjures up domestic duties or occupations traditionally associated with women—such as teaching, nursing, or housekeeping. The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection upends those associations and makes the true breadth of women's contributions visible. By bringing together materials from across the centuries, Baskin reveals what has been hidden—that Western women have long pursued a startling range of careers and vocations and that through their work they have supported themselves, their families, and the causes they believed in.

The exhibition Five Hundred Years of Women's Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection introduces Baskin's collection to the public for the first time. It includes more than 11,000 printed books, hundreds of manuscripts and photographs, and artifacts ranging from an anti-slavery token to Virginia Woolf's writing desk. In 2015, Lisa Baskin placed her collection at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History & Culture in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. Prior to its arrival at Duke, this had been a private collection accessible only to the fortunate students and scholars invited to visit Lisa Baskin's library. This exhibition and accompanying catalogue provide a first glimpse of the diversity and depth of the collection, revealing the lives of women both famous and forgotten and paying tribute to their accomplishments.

The Rubenstein Library and the Grolier Club have collaborated to present the exhibition and to publish this catalogue, a fitting partnership between a relatively young American research library and the oldest existing club for bibliophiles in North America. Within the exhibition, we recognize not only the contributions of women across the centuries, but also Lisa Baskin's vision, persistence, and keen eye. Women have long built private collections, but they have been fewer in number than their male counterparts and only recently been welcomed as members in some bibliophilic circles. Several of the women who contributed to this exhibition and catalogue are Grolier Club members.

This catalogue is itself women's work. For example, women cataloged the books and arranged and described the manuscripts, ephemera, and artifacts. The exhibition's curators, designers, and technicians are women, as are the essayists who introduce the collection. The designers who brought such elegance to the catalogue are women who chose typefaces designed by women. This was not happenstance, but a deliberate choice by the curators to highlight contemporary contributions by women to scholarship and the book trades.

Five hundred years of history seen in a new light is a good start. But for those who would take up where this exhibit leaves off, there's plenty of women's work left to do.