August morning, light rain. I sat at a table in the Pforzheimer Reading Room and grinned. A whole week ahead to time travel.
I had spent years wandering in other libraries, listening to voices preserved in crumbling letters as the white keys of my laptop turned gray with archival dust. I wrote a book that told a forgotten story. Now I was in search of a new story to tell. I had come to spend a week with the Blackwells.
If you were the kid who always headed for the junior biography section of the library (I was not), you may have met the most famous Blackwell. In 1849, she received a medical degree, earning herself a permanent home on the shelf of iconic American heroines—Elizabeth Blackwell: first woman doctor. But Elizabeth was the third sibling of nine, part of an eccentric, opinionated, cranky, inspired, prolific clan whose correspondents included some of the most prominent intellectuals of the 19th century.
There was Anna, a writer and translator who dreamed of utopia; the aforementioned Elizabeth, something of a termagant, implacable in her ambitions; Emily, a pioneering doctor herself, ever in Elizabeth’s long shadow. Five sisters who eschewed marriage, while two of their brothers chose mates—Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown, whose crusades for suffrage and abolition eclipsed their husbands’ careers. The Blackwells were a world unto themselves. They depended on each other, but they also drove one another crazy and could never share the same space for long—which meant they never stopped writing to one another.
In 2013, the Schlesinger embarked on an ambitious project to digitize the Blackwell Family Papers: 120,000 letters, photos, journals, sketches, articles, and ephemera spanning four generations. In the summer of 2015, the Blackwell Family Digital Suite went live.
I had been investigating the intersection of some favorite themes: transgressive 19th-century women, science, New York. Having grown up at a storied Manhattan girls’ school, mentored by bluestockings and happiest in calculus and biology, I had started college as a premed. Life intervened—I went to Japan instead of medical school—but now I had an itch to reclaim those first passions. A hundred and sixty years ago, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Dr. Emily Blackwell had opened a women’s hospital less than five miles from my apartment. Clearly, I needed to know them better.
Thanks to the Herculean efforts of the Schlesinger, I began at my dining table, clicking through high-res images, learning to recognize the Blackwells by their handwriting. I could work straight from the online finding aids: scan a list of folders, pick a juicy one, and open it, just like that. When I needed a break from letters, I browsed the “Document Type” categories, which stretched the definition of “document” beyond recognition. “Knitting bag”: Elizabeth’s, black satin, cut from an old dress worn to a family wedding. “Contraceptives”: condoms, papery and translucent, with ribbon ties and a tentative annotation, “made from animal intestines?”
Digital research makes it possible for me to be both a writer and a full-time parent; I am grateful for it every day. But search engines can be the enemy of serendipity: they show you only what you’re already looking for. The beauty of the Blackwell papers is in the architecture of the site, which incorporates keywords and tags to facilitate wandering. It’s like having an archivist on your shoulder making helpful suggestions.
I’m a Luddite at heart, though, and after a few months of clicking, it was time for a pilgrimage, especially because the Schlesinger had just opened a new exhibition, Women of the Blackwell Family: Resilience and Change. I needed to get my other senses involved, stand in the presence of the artifacts themselves, and most important, talk to the people who were the keepers of all this history and who were so willing to share it.
It was my first visit, but it felt like a homecoming: a house of women, past and present. In addition to the librarians themselves, there were the breadcrumb trails of other scholars, their dissertations pointing toward sources I hadn’t considered. Best of all was a peek into the library’s vault. There’s something magical about the word vault: a leap; a soaring sacred space; an underground hoard with walls of impenetrable stone. I left the soupy humidity of midsummer at the threshold and entered a chilly, humming room full of impeccably organized treasure: ancient cookbooks, modern manifestos, thousands and thousands of letters. So many voices, waiting for the right storyteller to come along and listen. No wonder the room was humming.
I’ll be back soon.
The author of the novel Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back (W. W. Norton and Company, 2016), Janice P. Nimura lives in New York City.