Historical essay
Collaboration: A Margaret Bingham Stillwell Imprint

Collaboration: A Margaret Bingham Stillwell Imprint

Amanda E. Strauss

“I had a succession of Trustees who treated me vaguely but graciously in a Victorian way, even though they could not understand how it happened that a woman could be interested in books.” (MBS LAH xii)

Margaret Bingham Stillwell (1887-1984) began her career at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island when she was still a student at Pembroke College (now part of Brown University). Her prominent father and the JCB’s eminent Librarian had discussed her prospects and set her up for the experience; this was surely the last time two men engineered her life and work so thoroughly. Forging her own path with tenacity, Stillwell went on to lead another Brown library focused on incunabula and medieval and early modern art and artifacts (the Annmary Brown Memorial Library) and to be the first woman full professor at Brown (in Bibliography).

Stillwell’s long life and prolific work–and her frank assessment of both–struck a chord with us, the first woman directors of our respective libraries at Brown University (Karin at the John Carter Brown Library, Amanda at the John Hay Library). We bonded over our mutual admiration for the acerbic and vivacious Stillwell. She pulled up a chair at the very male table of rare books and librarianship – a table with sharp edges that has routinely left bruises on generations of women and people of color. A pioneer, she left a significant imprint on our libraries. And she thought deeply both about individual books as well as how books can grow into meaningful collections.[1] Our conversations about Margaret Stillwell also contributed to our sense of urgency about generous and necessary interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration, especially for addressing exclusions and silences inherent to libraries and collections.

A beautiful, "classical" building front, looks kind of like a tomb.
John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. (Wikimedia Commons

Through Stillwell, we have talked about the practical work of archives and libraries and also the intellectual and theoretical framework for their development and practice. What has astonished and concerned us is how often two exciting and essential, fully sympathetic literatures about the practice of archive-making and their use have remained parallel rather than symbiotic and mutually informed. In the wry dedication to her autobiography, Stillwell harkens “with affection and amusement to my many friends in the rare book world and a handful of subtle enemies.” While we choose to interpret generously the professional dissonance that we observe, we worry about a heightened discourse of “subtle enemies” rather than engaged collaborators. In the spirit of the latter, even while we recognize the fractious and tender dynamics that may have produced the former, we offer a starting point.

We begin with the necessity to put into explicit conversation the scholarship of archivists working in the critical archives studies mode and scholars engaged with what has been called the “archival turn.” Twenty years ago, Dr. Terry Cook was one of the first to offer an alternative to the waning but still tenacious notion of archival neutrality. He published essays that would permanently reshape the archival literature: “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts” and “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” By introducing a fresh theoretical framework, he ushered in a newly expansive era for archivists.

By the early 2010s, another formative wave of archival scholarship emerged — the social justice turn. In Archives and Justice Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela foundation urged archivists to “heed the call of justice,” to “refuse insularity and to embrace archival hospitality.” The long list of influential work that urged the field to embrace its influence with a purposeful, justice-driven agenda and firmly placed archivists in the U.S. in a global conversation includes scholarship by David Wallace, Michelle Caswell, and Joel Blanco-Rivera. Spreading as a restorative burn through the profession, this work paved the way for subfields such as community archives, collective memory, and human rights archives urging archivists to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with living communities. Critical archival theory intersects with the ethics of care, memory studies, indigeneity, liberation, and a reckoning with racism and colonialism. The latter in particular represents a stark departure from the field’s origins in which archival record-keeping was regularly an arm of colonial and state power. What had seemed radical only a decade ago is now a foundation that continues to be examined, renamed, and excavated.

Meanwhile, literary scholars, historians, scholars of language and area studies, and others who use archival records in their research are asking key questions about “the archive.” Some of this work, it must be acknowledged, infuriates trained archivists and highlights the legacy of professional siloing and hierarchy. Yet scholarship investigating the historical origins and structure of western archival institutions and record-keeping has illuminated specific forms of colonialism and Eurocentrism and framed our understanding of the partial nature of the archival record. It has also created critical processes for reading the fragments as well as the corpus of that record. The result is a more richly informed scholarship taking more careful account of the material on which scholarly analysis rests, and the context in which it was produced, saved, and made available for research.

A three story room with balconies and a long table with chairs in the middle of the room
Robinson Hall reading room, Brown University. (Picaryl)

For many, Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) was a landmark in pointing to how historical narratives are shaped by the archival record that is itself shaped by the powers that created it. His work contributed to scholarship on questions of archival and consequent “historical silences,” showing how Haiti’s revolution and national foundation was sidelined in the story of democratic revolutions; the very archival records of Haiti’s successful revolution against slavery cast the formerly enslaved as rebels against the French, rather than as patriots in their own revolutionary right.

How to read the materials of an archive so shaped by power is a question any number of scholars have been addressing or begun to address. Ann Laura Stoler’s account of the Dutch East Indies in Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense centered archival production as an act of empire. Reading along the grain responded to a volume of postcolonial writing about reading against the grain, or reading and thinking in a resistant mode. By reading a full archive along the grain, Stoler asserted, we can learn more about the structure and operations of colonial power. Marisa Fuentes has been a leader in the analysis of particular archival materials and the implications of their origins. In Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, Fuentes examined the fragmentary archive of slavery in Barbados, demonstrating how the records reproduce the violence they document.

What brings these disciplinary, professional perspectives together is a focus on the context (over text) that informs practice. Our respective professional colleagues writing and teaching about “archives” have been working in parallel to outline an imperative for closely reading and working with sources, not as distinct objects that seemingly emerged from the ether, but as purposefully placed, ephemeral evidence of the past that reveals larger networks and structures. This context matters because it helps us to better see the contours of the past and the present in which we are interpreting. The two clearly complementary perspectives on archives we have sketched here are immeasurably enriched when considered together.

Thinking about this necessary entwining brings us back to Margaret Stillwell, who fully inhabited the entwined worlds of librarianship and scholarship that over her lifetime became more professionally separated but which we know are actually inseparable. But while Stillwell seems to us a prescient harbinger of a renewed appreciation for this inseparability, she was also a woman of her time. In her autobiography, her papers held at the John Hay Library, and her bibliographic scholarship, she was only sometimes a vigorous commenter on the injustices of the profession to which she had dedicated herself. She participated in what she described as Women’s Rights and described herself as a Feminist– by which she meant the 19th Amendment, and her own and her friends’ right to vote. Only briefly did she address more glaring exclusions. She recounted a story of a visitor making racist and classist assumptions about Eugene Rhodes, the custodian at the Annmary Brown Memorial Library during World War II (and after she retired, within Stillwell’s home). A “Southern gentleman,” she explained that Rhodes’s Chinese and Fiji Islands heritage made him think about a book he had been reading about “aborigines.” Rhodes responded that “he knew the author [of the book] and had read that book and others.” This sent the other man “out of the door like a shot.” Stillwell left the story there, as testament to, but without much more explicit commentary on, this or other exclusions intrinsic to the world in which she lived and worked.

This incident, which was surely not an anomaly, reminds us that we collaborate precisely to better understand and then to confront the exclusions and archival silences that Stillwell and other founding librarians permitted. Those silences and exclusions are a key part of what shaped our institutions and the research they supported, and now must inform our work to address them– together.


  1. These two texts that crystalize her thinking on these issues comprise the first comprehensive study of incunabula held in the United States and were part of the foundation for The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC), the authoritative reference catalog for early printed works.Margaret Bingham Stillwell, Incunabula and Americana, 1450-1800: A Key to Bibliographical Study. 2nd edition. (Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1961).Stillwell. Incunabula in American Libraries; a Second Census of Fifteenth-Century Books Owned in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. First edition. (The Bibliographical Society of America, 1940.)

Featured image caption: Margaret Stillwell, class of 1909, began working at the John Carter Brown Library as a student. From 1917 to 1953, she was curator of the Annmary Brown Memorial Library while it was a private library and after it was deeded to Brown in 1948. She was a professor and an expert on incunabula and the first honorary woman member of the Grolier Club, elected in January 1977. (Courtesy Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library)

Amanda Strauss is the Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Director of the John Hay Library at Brown University where she leads the John Hay Library, which is home to Brown University’s remarkable collections of rare books, manuscripts, and archival material. The Hay and its collections attract an international cohort of researchers, and by implementing a creative and compelling collection policy (https://library.brown.edu/hay/collectionpolicy/), Ms. Strauss is strengthening its profile as one of the preeminent research collections in the United States. She earned her MLIS with a concentration in Archival Studies from Simmons College and her MA in History from Simmons College. She also holds a B.A. from Willamette University. Ms. Strauss is a scholar of human rights archives and twentieth century women’s movements in the United States. She is the author of “Treading the Ground of Contested Memory: Archivists and the Human Rights Movement in Chile” (Archival Science 2015). https://www.amandaestrauss.com/