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Penn Libraries News

Featured Books: Women's History Month

A bookshelf.

On March 1st, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center premiered its Featured Books display. Featured Books will showcase rotating selections from the Libraries' vast and varied collection. Though the stacks department is in charge of curating each installation, they will regularly solicit recommendations and ideas from all Libraries staff. The end result of each Featured Books display will be a motley reading list tailored by people who love books.

Head of Collection Management Eileen Kelly sees the Featured Books initiative as a means to promote discovery and exploration of the library’s resources. “We’re bringing the stacks to you,” she jokes. For the inaugural installment, Eileen worked with library clerk Megan Brown — who has a discerning eye for book covers — in order to make the exhibit appeal visually to passing patrons while including as many titles as space will allow.

Since it’s March, the first Featured Books display commemorates Women’s History Month. The assortment of 70 titles aims to capture, in Eileen’s words, “the breadth of the female experience.” From Jewish Feminism Framed and Reframed (2018) to Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism (2007) to Indigenous Women’s Writing and the Cultural Study of Law (2017), this installment represents a broad diversity of studies in intersectionality. Eileen regrets that Featured Books launched after Black History Month and so made duly certain that the display highlighted a great number of works by and about the black American female experience, including such titles as Black Women as Custodians of History (2014), Beyonce in Formation (2018), and the bestselling For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics (2018).

The display also features works about older women, whom, Eileen notes, tend to be sidelined or ignored in discussions of contemporary women’s issues. One of Megan’s favorite titles from this month’s Featured Books is The Raging Grannies: Wild Hats, Cheeky Songs and Witty Actions for a Better World (2004), which chronicles the emergence of an activist collective of older women across the US and Canada.

In addition to giving voice to a diversity of identities, the Women’s History Month Featured Books exhibits work from and about women in historically male-dominated spheres. For the first two weeks in March, digital signs will promote female-authored titles culled from the library’s extensive collection of graphic novels and comics, including Anya Davidson’s psychedelic Band for Life (2016) and Anaële Hermans’ Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine (2018), a nonfictional travel diary illustrated in sparse black-and-white. The second two weeks will highlight books about women in STEM fields, like Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie? (2007) and American Women and Flight Since 1940 (2004). Eileen especially recommends Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers (2018), a history of the clothing which ingenious female cyclists invented to circumvent the physically-restrictive conventions of Victorian women’s fashion.

This month’s Featured Books also encompasses perspectives from across the political spectrum, reflecting the complex reality of modern feminism. For instance, Shulamith Firestone’s radical feminist manifesto, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), diametrically counterpoises Phyllis Schlafly’s collected essays, Feminist Fantasies (2003). Schlafly famously campaigned in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal rights to all American citizens regardless of sex. (The ERA was first introduced to Congress in 1921 and has yet to be ratified.) For Eileen, showcasing Firestone and Schlafly in the same installation speaks to the goal of a library: “the provision of unadulterated information, free of agenda and free of judgment.”

Although the display is located to the immediate right of New Books (just past the first-floor information desk), Featured Books is not merely a subsection of Van Pelt’s recent acquisitions. The installations will routinely draw older volumes from the library’s collection to encourage patrons to explore the stacks. This month, such titles include Sojourner Truth’s historically essential memoir, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850/2005) and Kate Chopin’s classic proto-feminist novel, The Awakening (1899/2018). Eileen acknowledges that, in keeping selections directly relevant to contemporary discourse and within the allotted space, Women’s History Month Featured Books are limited to 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century authors and subjects. “But it doesn’t end here,” Eileen says; each Featured Books installation will remain in conversation with others that come before and after. For example, the archaic Greek female poet Sappho will be featured in April’s exhibit for National Poetry Month.

Megan and Eileen agree that the greatest difficulty in pulling the inaugural installation together was whittling down the final selection from over 200 choice titles. Eileen invites anyone interested in either the condensed or extended reading lists to email her for a copy. She also welcomes ideas for future Featured Books displays — proposed themes, topics, genres, or authors. In the coming months, visitors can expect to see science fiction and cookbook displays.

As noted, Featured Books are promoted via digital signage in Van Pelt. The display itself features a cartoon drawn by Megan, who has a background in illustration and graphic design. Patrons are encouraged to check out titles from this and every Featured Books exhibit; staff will replenish and restock the display with fresh selections throughout the month.

Learn more about Women’s History Month at its official Library of Congress website: