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Digitizing the Past

Through an internship funded by the Hurford Humanities Center, Hilary Malson ’11 is spending her summer at the Library Company of Philadelphia expanding the library’s digital collection, Portraits of American Women.

Using eleven portraits, all from texts published prior to 1861, Malson is designing an online exhibit titled “Extraordinary Bodies.”  The exhibit features portraits of American women who were perceived as extraordinary or peculiar based on their physical attributes.  All of the women chosen were notable for being, among other things, extremely old, exotic, "freaks," cross-dressers, and even chronic invalids.

Malson says of her project, “Drawing on theories of the body, politics, and power from philosophers such as Dorinda Outram, Elizabeth Grosz, and Judith Butler, I hope that the exhibit will shed light on historical constructions of the female body, as well as highlight just a few of the fascinating women hidden within the Library Company’s tremendous collections.”

Malson’s internship includes some of the expected library work of paging and shelving books, but the excitement of her project balances that out.  “Every day is different at the Library Company,” she says, “We are constantly receiving new research fellows, so I am constantly dealing with a variety of materials.”

Among some of these materials are Civil War ephemera, old recruitment posters, and an Islamic text written in Arabic in 1773 by an anonymous slave from Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti), as well as various journals of phrenology (the study of personality traits based on the shape of one’s skull) and ethnographic natural histories.

A growth and structure of cities major with a minor in anthropology, Malson was drawn to the Library Company internship by her interest in pursuing a graduate degree in library sciences.  The Library Company is a major center for scholarship on American history and culture from the colonial period through the end of the 19th century, making it a perfect fit for Malson.  “This internship has been extraordinarily helpful and eye-opening to me,” she explains, “It’s one thing to live in Magill [Library] and discover its nooks and crannies during the academic year, but quite another to wander the stacks of [what is known as] America’s oldest cultural institution.”

--Mike Troup ’11

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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