Libraries, love letters and lasting impressions

March 22, 2012

Digitization efforts draw attention to Baylor collections and campus archives


Some of the most famous love letters ever written are now viewable in their original handwritten form, thanks to the joint efforts of Wellesley College and Baylor University.

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 and are now available online through Baylor Libraries' digital collection called the Browning Letters project. The collaborative task provides unprecedented free online access to these celebrated letters for scholars and romantics alike.

In addition to Wellesley's letters, Baylor has digitized more than 800 items from its own collection of Browning correspondence -- about 2,800 letters written by or to the Brownings -- which are held at Baylor's Armstrong Browning Library. Those letters also are available to scholars and the public through the Browning Letters project.

"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 graduate 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."

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 the greatest literary romance of all time and 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.

The technology allows readers to zoom in closely or rotate letters to see intricate details and examine the individual words, scribbles and marks from the poets' hands.

In addition, each page contains valuable metadata -- historical information about each letter added by Baylor -- including full transcriptions that allow all Wellesley's Browning love letters to be full text searchable.

"As the Browning Letters project progresses, it is likely that poetical manuscripts will be digitized as well," said Rita 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."

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

Benefiting from the establishment in 2008 of the Riley Digitization Center, the Baylor University Libraries have created and maintain some 30 digital collections. From the Browning love letters to the Black Gospel Music Digitization Project, the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections continue to make national headlines, giving access to interested parties from all over the world.

Thus far, more than 30,000 items have been archived, including items from Baylor's Texas Collection, the U.S. Civil War, Baylor athletics, popular American sheet music, items from Baptist history, the sermons of George W. Truett and Charles Spurgeon, JFK collections, more than 1,800 oral history interviews, and Waco City Directories from 1873-1923.

Furthermore, more than 10,000 editions of the Baylor Lariat have been added to the archive, with searchable years from 1900 to 1995, with missing periods added as they are discovered.

To view the poets' letters in their own hand, visit