Wellesley's Collection of World Famous Love Letters Digitized

February 14, 2012

To Reveal the Art of the Handwritten Love Letter, Two Colleges Use Technology

WELLESLEY, Mass.—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 will be made available online through Baylor’s Digital Collections beginning February 14, 2012. The collaborative project provides unprecedented free 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.

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 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.

Former Wellesley College President Caroline Hazard purchased the letters in 1930and 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 wishing to study the original letters would need to travel to Wellesley to view the letters in person.

Thanks to the generous gift of Walter S. Klein in loving memory of Mary Eddy Klein (Wellesley College class of 1942), who met as students and spent much time during their courtship at the Wellesley College Library, the project team hired 42-Line, a digital imaging company based in Oakland, CA, to digitize the letters on-site in Special Collections at Wellesley. The team worked for two weeks, meticulously handling and photographing each of the letters and envelopes, which are more than 165 years old.

Ruth Rogers, Wellesley’s Curator of Special Collections, believes the digitization of the Browning love letters represents a great step forward both in access and preservation. She said, “These letters have survived for 167 years, in spite of creased paper, fading ink, and competition for ownership on two continents. Wellesley College is indeed fortunate to have the originals, but we should not ‘possess’ them—their heritage is international.”

According to Barrett Browning scholar Sandra Donaldson (University of North Dakota), editor of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Pickering), 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.” She continued, “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.”

Digitization of the Letters

Just as Robert found Elizabeth, Wellesley also discovered the perfect partner in Baylor. The Baylor Libraries already had the significant infrastructure in place to create and maintain digital collections, of which it currently has 30. The university in central Texas also is the home of Armstrong Browning Library, which 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. Baylor added its own Browning correspondence to the project, using its high-resolution planetary scanner to digitize 842 of the more than 2,800 letters held by Armstrong Browning Library written either by or to the Brownings.

“Most researchers want to see the letters in their original state,” said Darryl Stuhr, Manager of Digitization Projects for the Baylor Electronic Library. “These digitized letters are as authentic online as if you pulled them out of a sleeve.”

Each page contains valuable metadata added by Baylor, including full transcriptions that allow these 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 terrabytes of storage space once his group digitizes all of the Brownings’ correspondence.

Preservation, Access, and Inspiration

Rogers also hopes that access to the letters will inspire people well beyond the College campus, noting the effect on visitors that come far and wide to view Wellesley’s Browning collection, which includes the Barrett family door by which Elizabeth would await Robert’s letters.

“When Russian and Italian visitors stand in awe in front of the famous mahogany door of 50 Wimpole Street, which still has the brass letter slot through which Robert Browning’s envelopes passed, I feel pride for Wellesley, and some amusement too.  Local legend has it that the slot was mysteriously closed up over 40 years ago when students would occasionally slip their own love letters through it. Why should we deny inspiration and hope to romantics and future poets? Perhaps it will be opened…” Rogers said.

Beginning February 14, 2012, scholars and the public will be able to see the complete collection of letters and envelopes online. The technology allows readers to zoom in closely to see intricate details, for example, to examine the individual words, scribbles, and marks from the poets’ hands. Readers can rotate the letters and envelopes, and are invited to browse and search the letters by date, author, and first line of text. 

“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 grad 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.”

Orr continued, “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. We want these letters to last as long as possible, but all physical objects deteriorate.  Through careful digitization and archival standards and storage we hope these letters will last virtually forever.”

Ganesan Ravishanker, Chief Information Officer at Wellesley College, added, “Technology enables us to extend the lives of these precious letters—and at the same time brings the magic of viewing them up close and examining the handwritten words on the page to anyone with an internet connection. The experience is as close as you can get to holding the actual letters in your hands—if not better.”    

Baylor-Wellesley collaboration will create unprecedented virtual collection of 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 the first phase of the project now complete, the two institutions will work to digitize a large amount of correspondence between the Brownings and leading artists and authors, including Benjamin Haydon, John Kenyon, Anna Jameson, and Harriet Martineau, which is also at Wellesley College.

“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.”

Baylor has developed The Browning Letters, an online resource of Browning materials. 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.

The virtual collection launches February 14, 2012.

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.

Press Contacts

Sofiya Cabalquinto, 781-283-3321,  scabalqu@wellesley.edu
Anne Yu, 781-283-3201,  ayu@wellesley.edu