BY ROBIN RAUSCH
Research at the world's largest library can be daunting. Exploring a topic as broad and varied as American women's history makes it especially complex. But assemble a team of Library of Congress subject area specialists who work with their collections daily, add the advice and expertise of respected women's studies scholars from around the country, and help is at hand. It comes in the form of American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States, a guide designed to steer even the most unseasoned researcher through the mountains of information about women to be found in the Library's unparalleled collections.
"The challenge of women's history is not a simple question of 'add women and stir,'" writes historian Susan Ware in her introduction to the guide. "It means rethinking and rewriting the story." Ms. Ware, who is currently editor of Notable American Women at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, offers a brief survey of the state of women's history that illustrates the new questions emerging from the field and stresses the importance of research and documentation in answering them. She concludes, "Sometimes it is a case of finding totally new sources and documents to tell a story that needs to be told, but far more often it is a matter of revisiting more traditional sources and asking different questions of them. That is where the rich resources of the Library of Congress come in."
With 12 chapters, almost 300 illustrations and five essays designed to show the importance of cross-divisional research, American Women exemplifies the multicultural, interdisciplinary approach to American women's history and culture that the Library's collections provide. The chapters are organized by the Library's major reading rooms and were written by Library of Congress subject specialists. They cover the general collections, newspapers and periodicals, legal materials, rare books, manuscripts, prints, photographs, maps, music, recorded sound, moving images, American folklife and foreign-language collections. Each chapter offers suggestions for using the collections and highlights important holdings related to women, including digitized collections available through the online American Memory collections at memory.loc.gov.
The guide advises to "cast your net widely." This cannot be stressed too forcefully. Serious research on a topic will invariably lead to more than one reading room. Consider, for example, the case of Margaret Sanger, early birth control advocate. Sanger repeatedly found herself at odds with the law of the day. In 1914 she was indicted for sending obscenity through the mail: Three issues of her journal The Women Rebel contained articles on sexuality. She was convicted and subsequently imprisoned in 1917 for operating a birth control clinic, yet fearlessly continued her campaign for family planning.
Many books on Sanger are found in the Library's General Collections, but further searching will turn up primary source material in several other places. The Manuscript Division houses Sanger's personal papers. A pamphlet collection she gave to the Library in 1931, which includes her famous tract "The Fight for Birth Control," is located in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Many photos of Sanger can be found in the Prints and Photographs Division, and she can even be heard on selected radio broadcasts available in the Recorded Sound Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
Less obvious, though equally significant, is the contribution the Law Library can make to such research. Here one can look up and trace the history of the laws that Sanger defied, such as the Comstock Act of 1873, which classified materials "for the prevention of conception" as obscene and made it illegal to send them through the mail. The court decisions that gradually removed restrictions on birth control are a testament to the influence of Sanger's campaign.
One of the strengths of American Women is its exploration of sources not commonly consulted for study. Legal information is one type of material that is underused in research, largely due to its perceived complexity. The guide supplies a discussion of legal research methodology that helps demystify law for the novice and demonstrates how investigating court decisions can reveal views and attitudes about women. Along the way researchers learn about treasures like the American State Trials Collection, a published record of state trials dating back to Colonial times. Among its trial transcripts and judicial opinions are cases on adultery, murder, libel and rape–cases that provide a remarkable record of how women fared in the legal system before there were female attorneys or women jurors.
Other unlikely resources abound. In the Music Division, popular American sheet music portrays women in song lyrics and cover art. Images of women in advertising are among the holdings of the Prints and Photographs Division. Newsreel film footage from the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division chronicle women news makers. Nineteenth century dime novels, an early form of pulp fiction, bear such intriguing titles as Female Sharpers of New York, Their Haunts and Habits, Their Wiles and Their Victims and can be consulted in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Maps from the Geography and Map Division identify property and businesses that women owned and verify such curious facts as the existence of 109 brothels in the immediate vicinity of the White House in 1890s Washington. Even the adventures of superhero icon Wonder Woman are documented in the largest comic book collection in the United States, found in the Serial and Government Publications Division. There is virtually no type of material collected by the Library that does not make a contribution to the telling of women's stories.
By "casting the net widely," one is sure to encounter surprises along the way. In the Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, one can view the 1919 version of "Deliverance," a narrative film starring Helen Keller that dramatizes her life. In the Recorded Sound Section, Keller's voice is preserved on an unpublished recording from 1952, in which she addresses Library of Congress employees about the talking books for the blind program. Recorded sound and moving image are relatively new media, but holdings in both collections date back further than one might think. The suffrage movement is unexpectedly well documented on film before women won the vote in 1920.
The General Collections also hold unexpected treasures. In addition to standard biographical sources and women's writings, there are etiquette books, game and hobby books, sex manuals, cookbooks, college catalogs and school primers. All carry different kinds of useful information. Nineteenth century cookbooks are full of facts on medicines and nursing, laundry methods, house maintenance and etiquette. College catalogs dating back to the 19th century provide fascinating facts about women's education.
The collections of the Manuscript Division are unprecedented for their holdings related to women. Numbered among them are the personal papers of prominent women such as anthropologist Margaret Mead, Civil War nurse Clara Barton and suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose manuscripts include a draft of her controversial The Woman's Bible. A critical attack on church authority, it nearly splintered the suffrage movement when it was published in 1895. The archival records of organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also prove invaluable for the documents they contain by and about women and women's issues. The more than 900 collections of members of Congress contain much information about women's lives. Many of these incorporate correspondence and other personal papers of congressional wives, such as Eugenia Levy Phillips, wife of 19th century congressional representative Philip Phillips from South Carolina. She was arrested and imprisoned in Washington, D.C., as a Confederate spy during the Civil War. Later paroled, she returned to the South and worked with sick Confederate soldiers in Georgia.
Women are especially important as collectors of ethnographic materials. Many of the collections in the Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center were wholly or in part created by women. Novelist Zora Neale Hurston worked for the Federal Writers' Project in Florida, serving as an important contact in the African American community there. Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942, features folk songs and folk tales from a variety of cultural communities throughout Florida. Hurston performed during several recording sessions and can be heard singing folk songs including "Mama Don't Want No Peas, No Rice." This song, she explains, "is about a woman that wanted to stay drunk all the time, and her husband is really complaining about it."
The key to unlocking all this information is knowing how and where to find it; American Women is invaluable in this regard. It makes sense of the Library's seemingly idiosyncratic organization, explaining where to go to find a specific piece of information and what else might be found of interest once there. The Farsi-language monthly Rah-e-Zendegi, for example, is found among the Library's area studies collections. It can be requested in the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room, one of four area studies reading rooms that serve foreign-language publications. Published in Los Angeles, home of the largest Iranian population outside of Iran, it is one example of the foreign-language newspapers and periodicals published in the United States that represent the women of immigrant and ethnic populations in America.
Readers will also discover that there is considerable overlap in the types of material located in the various custodial divisions. Reading rooms appear to be organized by format or subject, and in many cases that assumption works. The personal papers of African American educator and religious leader Nannie Helen Burroughs may be found in the Manuscript Division. Images of the Washington, D.C., school for African American girls that she founded in 1909 are in the Prints and Photographs Division. There are, however, collections that contain photographs in the Manuscript Division, and in the American Folklife Center and the Music Division too. The Alexandra Danilova Collection, located in the Music Division, is particularly noteworthy for the more than 2,000 photographs it contains of the famous ballerina.
Recorded sound resources also cross divisional lines, but not in the way one might think. The Music Division, paradoxically, is not the place to go to listen to music performed or composed by women. Audio resources are usually handled through the Recorded Sound Reference Center. But the audio researcher should not overlook the American Folklife Center. It has an extraordinary collection of recorded ex-slave narratives among its many audio holdings. One can hear the actual voices of former slaves, many of them women, recounting their stories.
As one reads through the various chapters of American Women, it becomes evident that certain collections are well represented in the online catalogs and finding aids, while others are not. Many of the Library's more than 120 million items have no bibliographic record online. Special- format collections in particular often rely on in-house finding aids and indexes, and several reading rooms still depend on local card catalogs. This information is crucial in an age when so many believe that everything can be found online. Each chapter of American Women also discusses relevant subject headings, recommends reference sources and provides selected bibliographies and search tips. "Pathfinders" demonstrate how to find certain kinds of sources. The guide focuses on Library of Congress collections, but readers will come away with new ideas and methodologies that can be applied to research in general.
Aside from its value as a research guide, American Women is fun to read. The text is peppered with stories of amazing American women in different professions, like radio broadcaster Chris Noel, whose program during the Vietnam war, "A Date with Chris," was so successful at boosting morale that the North Vietnamese offered a reward for her assassination. Mar'a Gertrudis Barcel—, known as La Tules, owned and ran gambling casinos in New Mexico that made her the richest woman in Santa Fe during the 1840s. She achieved such legendary fame that nearly a century later, she was mentioned in the Federal Writers' Project interviews. Journalist Nellie Bly attained international fame with her round-the-world journey in 1889-90, for the New York World. The paper dubbed her a "veritable Phineas Fogg" as she brought to life Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. Attorney Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar in 1879. Photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston landed an interview with Adm. George Dewey, the "Hero of Manila Bay," after his naval victory in the Philippines in 1899. She was invited on board his battleship after producing a letter of reference from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. The success of composer Amy Beach's Gaelic Symphony in 1896 caused one male composer to refer to her as "one of the boys." Map makers and geographers, composers and performers, broadcasters and recording artists, filmmakers and actors–women appear in all these roles and more within the 400-plus pages of American Women.
Five essays, also by area specialists, are interspersed between the chapters and serve to demonstrate the necessity and value of cross-divisional research. "Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913" and "The Long Road to Equality: What Women Won from the ERA Ratification Effort" address issues of political activism and inevitable reaction. The tension between realistic, and allegorical and stereotypical representations of women are examined in "'With Peace and Freedom Blest!' Woman as Symbol in America, 1590-1800." "Women on the Move: Overland Journeys to California," documents some of the realities of pioneer women's experiences. And "The House That Marian Built: The MacDowell Colony of Peterborough, New Hampshire" provides a portrait of a tenacious individualist, demonstrating the rich potential of the Library's collections for biographers.
A guide of such comprehensive coverage and attention to detail would not have been possible without the expertise and dedication of the subject area specialists who contributed to it. The Library of Congress staff members who wrote American Women are: Sheridan Harvey, Humanities and Social Sciences Division; Georgia Metos Higley, Serial and Government Publications Division; Pamela Barnes Craig, Law Library of Congress; Rosemary Fry Plakas, Rare Book and Special Collections Division; Jacqueline Coleburn, Special Materials Cataloging Division; Janice E. Ruth, Manuscript Division; Barbara Orbach Natanson, Prints and Photographs Division; Patricia Molen van Ee, Geography and Map Division; this writer, who is in the Music Division; Nancy J. Seeger, Recorded Sound Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division; Rosemary Hanes with Brian Taves, Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division; James Hardin, American Folklife Center; Peggy K. Pearlstein and Barbara A. Tenenbaum, Area Studies Collections; Leslie W. Gladstone, Congressional Research Service; and Sara Day, Publishing Office. Publishing Office Editors Sara Day and Evelyn Sinclair were joined by three of these specialists in editing the guide: Sheridan Harvey, women's studies specialist in the Main Reading Room; Janice E. Ruth, specialist in women's history in the Manuscript Division; and Barbara Orbach Natanson, reference specialist in the Prints and Photographs Division.
During the almost four years that American Women was in production, the Library of Congress team was advised by an outside committee of six women's history scholars led by historian and writer Susan Ware of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University. Each of Ms. Ware's fellow scholars contributed in unique ways to shaping and polishing the guide. They are: Eileen Boris, Hull Professor of Women's Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara; Joanne M. Braxton, Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professsor of American Studies and English at the College of William and Mary; Carol F. Karlsen, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan; Alice Kessler-Harris, Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University; and Vicki L. Ruiz, professor of history and Chicano-Latino studies at the University of California at Irvine.
The vast holdings of the Library of Congress illuminate the lives of women in countless ways. The collections discussed here represent only a small portion of what is available. American Women is the tool that will lead researchers to many others. There is much still to discover, and numerous stories yet to be told.
American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States–a 456-page softcover book with 298 illustrations, many in color–is available for $35 at major bookstores, through the University Press of New England and from the Library of Congress Sales Shops by calling (202) 707-0204.
Ms. Rausch, a specialist in the Music Division, is a Leadership Development Program intern in the Public Affairs Office.