Women's Stories: Why the Schlesinger Library Matters

Illustration by Michelle Thompson
Radcliffe Quarterly
February 1, 2008
By Joan Wickersham

It's a Wednesday afternoon in the Schlesinger Library.

A Harvard graduate student sits in the main reading room with six cartons of papers belonging to a woman who spied for the United States as a member of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

A reference librarian takes a phone call from a women's organization whose papers are housed in the library; they need help dating a photograph, and they have a question about the history of their organization's presidency.

An independent scholar searches Harvard's online HOLLIS catalog for materials in the Schlesinger pertaining to dining in Boston in the 1890s.

An email arrives from an instructor at another university's law school, asking what information the library possesses about the Economic Equity Act of 1981–1996.

A Harvard instructor teaching a freshman seminar on European consumer culture comes in to review a cart full of materials pulled by reference librarians from the Schlesinger's collections. The volumes include an 1892 English etiquette guide, a model of anxious snobbery whose authorship is attributed only to "A Member of the Aristocracy"; eighteenth-century French household dictionaries whose pages contain advice about pest control and are pocked with wormholes; and an 1854 French cookbook reflecting a craze for architectural pastry, showing cakes shaped like Moorish pavilions; Chinese pagodas; and Swiss hermitages; Russian, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Swedish, and Polish buildings; and a Gothic pavilion with forty-four columns.

The range of users on this random day—students, instructors, scholars—is fairly typical for the Schlesinger, as are the resources available to them: books, manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, online catalogs and digitized materials, and the expertise of the librarians. But a word like "typical," with its glib assumption that to understand a little is to understand everything, fails to do justice to the variety and richness of the Schlesinger Library's collections, to the history—both deliberate and serendipitous—of its formation, or to the intelligent planning that will determine its future.

The Collections: What's in the Library

Today, Nancy F. Cott is the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History—but her introduction to the Schlesinger and its collections came in the early 1970s, when she was, in her own words, "a graduate student, an outsider, and a researcher. I wanted to teach courses. I came here and it was open shelves, and I started photocopying." Cott relied heavily on the Schlesinger for her first book, Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women, published in 1972 by Dutton. When asked how she would have researched her book without a collection like the Schlesinger's, Cott says bluntly, "I would have been sunk."

With roughly three thousand unique manuscript collections—the most extensive in the world documenting American women’s history—collections of rare printed materials, and ninety thousand photographs, along with thousands of items of ephemera, the Schlesinger is arguably the world’s largest archive devoted to the history of both individual women and women’s organizations. The papers of NOW (the National Organization for Women) are here, as are the papers of many of its founders, including Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray, and Alice Rossi. So are the papers of NARAL (the National Abortion Rights Action League) and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which in 1970 published the groundbreaking Our Bodies, Ourselves. So are the papers of feminists such as Susan Brownmiller and Andrea Dworkin. So are many documents relating to labor history, including those of the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women and the HUCTW (Harvard University Clerical and Technical Workers). The organizations represented are both large (the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Women’s Equity Action League) and small (the Speculating Squirrels, a Cambridge women’s investment group that operated between 1958 and 2001).

The culinary collections include the papers of M. F. K. Fisher and Julia Child, along with a wealth of cookbooks and housekeeping manuals from many countries, dating back to the seventeenth century. There are specialized collections of women’s popular culture: feminist fiction; mysteries written by women or featuring women detectives; and self-help books aimed at women. The library possesses the papers of writers Dorothy West, Adrienne Rich ’51, Jean Valentine ’56, BI ’68, June Jordan, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose 1892 short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” was a forerunner of twentieth-century fiction portraying women smothered and maddened by domesticity. Scientists, doctors, judges, editors, politicians, educators, social workers, and missionaries are all represented. Amelia Earhart’s papers are here, as is her baby book (bound in white leather, with “Baby’s Kingdom” stamped on the cover in gold). There are written and oral records from women of many different countries, ethnicities, religions, and social and economic backgrounds. Famous women are well represented, but the library also houses many documents reflecting the lives of the not-famous: letters and diaries written by fishermen’s wives, teenagers, factory workers, and girls at summer camp.

Nancy F. Cott, director of the Schlesinger Library, and Robert C. Darnton '60, director of the Harvard University Library, in the Carol K. Pforzheimer Reading Room of the Schlesinger. Photo by Kathleen DooherNancy F. Cott, director of the Schlesinger Library, and Robert C. Darnton '60, director of the Harvard University Library, in the Carol K. Pforzheimer Reading Room of the Schlesinger. Photo by Kathleen DooherAccording to Nancy Cott, “The Schlesinger is not a typical library. It’s a special collections library. The items here are unique or rare. Our mission is to document the true variety of women’s activities by preserving materials that keep the record alive and complete. And we want to make the collection as inclusive and accessible as possible.”

Some of the Schlesinger’s collections are housed in the library itself, in temperature- and humidity-controlled stacks or in vaults beneath the building. Additional materials are stored in a vault in Radcliffe Yard, beneath the Radcliffe Gymnasium in what used to be the swimming pool. And a vast number of items are stored at the nearby Harvard Depository, which houses nearly six million books from Harvard’s libraries. It is as big as several football fields and air-conditioned for archival preservation rather than human comfort; the people who work there wear parkas year-round.

The magnitude of the collections, and the fact that they are increasingly easy to navigate through Harvard’s HOLLIS, VIA, and OASIS systems, allow scholars to use the library in varied and flexible ways. A biographer might be working on a subject whose entire collection of papers is in the Schlesinger, or a subject whose letters show up incidentally in files donated to the library. (Nancy Cott mentions as an example Frances Fineman Gunther, a journalist whose papers include correspondence with Nehru.) Someone might be researching women’s work in settlement houses, or conflict among early suffragist groups, or American travelers in early twentieth-century China. An instructor might draw on a variety of materials for a course: for a freshman seminar focusing on a ragged quilt made in Missouri around 1930, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich AM ’95 can direct students to contemporary diaries and scrapbooks, needlework periodicals, quilters’ oral histories, essays by modern writers on the metaphorical significance of quilts, and records related to the cotton industry.

Instructors and librarians can also point a student interested in a particular question or theme toward an individual represented in the library. For her senior thesis, Anne S. Waters ’07 wanted to research twentieth-century women’s choices about whether to work or stay home—“to look at one individual, who had worked and had a family, and see what she thought about the balance or imbalance in her life.” Waters’s professor, Nancy Cott, suggested Clara Savage Littledale, a journalist who covered post–World War I Europe and who founded Parents magazine. “She was telling other people how to be parents, so I was curious about how she did with her own family,” Waters says. “It’s clear from her personal writing that she’d have been bored out of her mind if she weren’t working, and that she could afford nannies to care for her children. But the magazine pieces professed a much more conservative viewpoint.” Waters found that Parents was unusually progressive in its advocacy of fathers’ participating in their children’s upbringing. She also learned that Littledale’s marriage to a fellow journalist ended in divorce because Littledale felt that her husband wasn’t contributing enough to family life. “In her private writing, you see someone struggling honestly with these issues,” Waters remembers. “But the Schlesinger also has some old copies of Good Housekeeping where you see Littledale advising readers that if you’re feeling down, you shouldn’t tell your husband; you should just put on a pretty dress and smile.”

Her work in the Schlesinger was “an unparalleled research experience,” Waters says. “I got to look at tangible pieces of evidence and put them together in a way that made sense. And to give voice to someone who hadn’t been heard yet.”

Robert R. Murciano-Goroff ’09 spent the summer of 2007 doing research in the library on a Carol K. Pforzheimer Student Fellowship. Building on an interest in juvenile justice, he immersed himself in the papers of Dr. Martha May Eliot, Class of 1913, one of the founders of UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). “She was trying to navigate a balance between public and private intervention in juvenile justice issues,” Murciano-Goroff says. “I can’t say enough about the librarians. They helped me figure out how best to allocate my grant funds—in addition to the materials at the Schlesinger, I needed materials from the Eisenhower and Truman libraries and from the WHO archives in Geneva.” He feels the fellowship helped him to determine his future direction. “No one had written about Dr. Eliot, and I wondered: Was that because there wasn’t much material there? But by the end of the summer, I had figured out that there was a lot there, and I could write my senior thesis about this; and also that I loved doing archival research, which is good to know as I make choices about my own career.”

The Past: How the Collections were Formed

The collections originated with a 1943 donation of documents to Radcliffe by Maud Wood Park, Class of 1898, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement and of the early League of Women Voters. Harvard history professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., suggested to Radcliffe president Wilbur Jordan, also a historian, that Park’s gift might be the beginning of a larger endeavor documenting the history of women. They approached historian Mary Ritter Beard, who in the 1930s had attempted to establish an international women’s archive, a project that collapsed in 1940. “With the onset of the war, people’s priorities and outlooks shifted,” Nancy Cott says. “Beard’s internationalism just didn’t fly. At the same time, there was tremendous interest in women taking active roles. It was the era of Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Beard responded enthusiastically to Radcliffe’s invitation, donating many of the papers she had been collecting and advising the College on further acquisitions. Mary Beard had “a capacious view of what libraries should include,” Cott believes. “For instance, she was a big proponent of oral histories—in the 1930s she proposed that the Camp Fire Girls do an oral history project interviewing their grandmothers.”

The library remained relatively small until the 1970s, when feminism suddenly made women’s history into news. Cott says, “The opening of the field was part of a broader move toward social history—history from the bottom up. Historians started looking at ordinary people rather than exceptional individuals, at social trends rather than exceptional events.” According to Cott, there was also a growing interest in questions of identity and consciousness, beginning with African American history and spreading to women’s history. “You see a real paradigm shift from when the question asked by historians was, ‘How were they treated?’ to the 1960s and ’70s, when the question became, ‘What was their experience?’ It went from letting others define a group to looking at how group members defined themselves.”

When historians shift their focus, they need to change their sources. At the same time, the availability—the preservation and survival—of certain kinds of sources can also lead historians to understand and tell stories in new ways. With its collections of materials and documents reflecting the daily lives, experiences, and preoccupations of women, the Schlesinger Library was ahead of its time. Its founders and early directors had anticipated the kinds of primary sources that historians after them would find most illuminating.

Preservation: Deciding What to Save and How to Save It

Robert C. Darnton ’60, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library, is, like Nancy Cott, a historian. And like Cott, he first experienced the Harvard libraries as a user. As an undergraduate, Darnton walked up the steps of Widener with a sense of awe. “I thought that all knowledge was inside the building, and that it all came prepackaged in books. But most of my work as a historian takes me into manuscripts and ephemera. History is a careful piecing together of arbitrary fragments.”

Darnton believes that the University Library’s most important mission—and its biggest challenge—is preservation, which involves both deciding what to save and finding reliable ways to save it. “The library is not a warehouse of books but an organic whole that has to keep growing,” he says. “It needs a constant infusion of intellectual energy, and that includes books, ephemera, and digital and electronic information.”

When asked how libraries can determine what to preserve, Darnton says there are two answers to the question. “The first is the cop-out answer, which is: We have experts. People who collect in Near Eastern studies, for instance, who know a dozen languages and are formidable scholars with great learning. They are real pros, and we can learn a great deal from them.

“But despite their expertise—and here’s the real answer—they can’t know for certain what scholars and historians might find interesting in the future, fifty or a hundred or two hundred years from now. Nobody knows.”

In the Schlesinger Library's reference area. Photo by Tony RinaldoIn the Schlesinger Library's reference area. Photo by Tony RinaldoOn the shelves in his office in Harvard Yard are several series of small books printed in eighteenth-century France. “Mauvais livres. Literally, ‘bad books.’ It was a term used in police reports.” Bound in leather or sewn into sections and wrapped in paper made of sugar cane, these little books were filled with gossip, philosophy, and political sedition. “This is what people were reading in the eighteenth century. People loved these, couldn’t get enough of them. They’re windows into people’s minds and preoccupations, into a whole society.” He opens a volume that purports to describe the private life of Madame du Barry; the pages are pristine. “Rag paper lasts forever,” he says. “But these were accidental survivors. No one would have thought back then to save them deliberately. No one would ever have imagined they might be interesting to historians of the future.”

Darnton’s “accidental survivors”—quotidian items that no one finds remarkable at the time but that might help illuminate an era for future historians—survive for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, he says, they are seemingly unimportant documents attached to the records of an important figure. “Benjamin Franklin ran a printing press. Nothing fancy—as far as I know, he published only one novel, an edition of Richardson’s Pamela. But his real work was the small daily jobs: bills of lading, tradesmen’s notices, things that can also tell us a lot about that society.”

Sometimes the survival of what proves to be a major historical source depends upon a library whose mission is compatible with the items in question. According to Nancy Cott, “One of the Schlesinger’s most valuable collections of early suffragist papers came from an Illinois woman named Mary Dillon. She offered it to a lot of places in the 1950s—the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and several universities—and was refused. Without this library, I’m not sure what would have happened to it.”

The depth and color of the library’s collections reflect some of the intuitive guesswork that Darnton suggests may be important, as well as a longtime commitment to preserve both large and small artifacts of women’s lives. “We have back issues of McCall’s, Seventeen, and Woman’s Day, for example,” Cott says. “These are periodicals that public libraries get and then throw out, and that research libraries rarely bother to collect.”

Thinking about items that have survived inevitably leads historians and librarians to lament the many more that have disappeared, some of which were thrown out because at some point they were judged to be junk, and some of which deteriorated because they were physically fragile. Robert Darnton says experts believe that roughly half of all films ever made have not survived. “Scholars studying the early days of silent film are working with only half the material that originally existed.” He mentions that Harvard possesses more than eight million photographs. “The people who took them originally weren’t necessarily interested in preservation. But we are. That’s the work of libraries.”

It is interesting to note that compared with film and newer forms of technology, paper is relatively durable. In fact, Darnton says, “The old-fashioned printed book is still the best machine for preserving knowledge.”

The Future: New Ways of Preserving, Accessing, and Understanding

Depending on whom you talk to, digitization could be either the greatest thing to happen to libraries since 300 B.C., when Alexandria’s library was founded with the ambition of collecting everything ever written, or the death knell of libraries and of the printed word in general. Neither Nancy Cott nor Robert Darnton subscribes to either extreme. They view digitization as a tool that can enhance and expand the library’s role in exciting ways.

Darnton says, “One medium of communication doesn’t displace another. Gutenberg’s invention certainly changed the world, but manuscript books kept being produced well into the nineteenth century. Did TV destroy radio or the cinema? No. The media are interpenetrating. And the advantage of a library system as vast and deep as Harvard’s is that it can grow in new areas without shortchanging others.”

Kathryn Allamong Jacob, the Schlesinger Library’s Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts, says that one of the major contributions of digitization will be to get the library’s finding aids—detailed descriptions of archival and manuscript collections—online. “Scholars can find out what’s in the library. They can decide if it’s worth a trip to Cambridge, or they can pinpoint where a certain paper or group of papers is and order photocopies.” Digitizing finding aids will also make the collections more navigable: there are so many papers from NOW, for example, that the finding aid alone is several hundred pages long.

Marilyn Dunn, Schlesinger Library executive director and Radcliffe librarian, says that digitizing also makes materials available to scholars all over the world. “It will prompt historical research and make new kinds of research possible. And it will allow instructors at small schools that don’t have these kinds of collections to teach with access to primary sources.” But “scholars will still want to come here and see a collection in its totality,” she adds. “Digitizing won’t replace the actual object—the context, the thrill, the visceral connection with history.” She points out that by putting materials online, “libraries are constantly expediting pathways to discovery. Students today use libraries extensively—but sometimes without realizing it. The information on the computer in their dorm room is frequently purchased and made accessible by libraries.”

Digitization can change the way people understand history. The Schlesinger participates in Harvard’s Open Collections Program, which began in 2004, assembling digitized materials from Harvard’s various libraries to create online collections around themes like “working women” and “immigration.” Through careful collaboration among Harvard’s faculty members, librarians, and curators, the Open Collections Program has made literally hundreds of thousands of pages from the Schlesinger and other collections accessible to readers all around the world. The online collections demonstrate what is possible with digitization, both technologically and conceptually. Users click on various links—an old diary whose pages flip daily and photographs and periodicals pertinent to a collection’s theme. Nancy Cott says, “The great thing here is access. Anyone can explore these materials. But also, it’s topic-based digitization—defined by a rubric that shows some intellectual direction.” In addition to widely distributing the riches of Harvard’s libraries, these collections allow users to follow up on items or themes of particular interest—to view a topic broadly or deeply, or to browse among materials from several different Harvard libraries. They can change and be penetrated in ways that are meaningful to each user.

Robert Darnton sees digitization as an avenue to innovation in history and storytelling, rather than just a straightforward transfer of material from printed to electronic media. One of his recent projects is an online article for the American Historical Review about street songs in eighteenth-century Paris, which were a way of disseminating political sedition. “The police would go to a café and arrest someone singing there, and they’d ask him, ‘Where did you get that song?’ And the singer would say, ‘I got it from so-and-so.’ Through police records, you can trace these songs back to their sources. The sheet music will say, ‘Sung to the tune of “Le Pendu”’—the hanged man—and of course no one now remembers ‘Le Pendu’.” But Darnton found a key to the tunes, and enlisted a French cabaret singer to record the songs. So readers of the article can follow the online text and click on links to get the song lyrics in French and English and also to hear the recordings. Darnton says, “This online way of presenting the story brings together old books and e-books—old forms of print communication and new media.”

At the same time that Harvard’s libraries are engaged in digitizing written and printed materials, they are facing another challenge: how to collect and preserve materials that were created electronically, or “born digital.” Data can become corrupt. Digital media can deteriorate. Software and hardware become frail or unusable—remember the floppy disk? “The way an electronic document can disintegrate is terrifying,” Darnton says. “And in addition to simply surviving, the material has to be findable.”

The challenge—and it is still a big one—is to preserve the many materials born digital, such as blogs, emails, electronic newsletters, and website content. “These are the ephemera that document the history of our society,” Marilyn Dunn says. “Professional correspondence, courting letters, messages between parents and children—it’s all happening online. How do you collect it, steward it, and deliver it to scholars fifty years from now?”

Dunn goes on to say that researchers need different primary sources for different reasons and that the source changes depending on the context. “Say in the future you want to document the first woman president’s campaign. From newspaper accounts, you would get her activities—where she went, whom she talked to. But if you want her ideas, you need to consult her position papers—and for that, you need to be able to access what was on her website.” But websites are constantly changing; Nancy Cott refers to them as “moving targets.”

“Libraries,” says Robert Darnton, “have a responsibility to collect materials from blogs, websites, email, and other contemporary modes of communication. The casual character of this material may be the very thing that will make special collections special a hundred years from now. How to harvest it and to preserve it for future generations? Harvard’s libraries—and the Schlesinger in particular—are grappling with this fundamental problem of the digital age.”

As it faces the ongoing challenges presented by digital media, the Schlesinger Library will be expanding and diversifying its collections. (Areas targeted for growth in a recent study conducted by a panel of women’s historians include African American women; Latinas; conservative women; women, religion, and spirituality; immigrant communities of women; low-income women; American women acting globally; and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered studies.) It will devote attention to books and other materials in need of repair and conservation. It will eliminate its processing backlog, cataloging and making new collections available to users. And it will continue to reach out to the public—serving what has historically been its function not just as a library but as a community for everyone interested in women’s history.

“Our job,” says Nancy Cott, “is to keep doing what we’ve always done, only better. To make sure that whenever history is written, women are a central part of the story.”


Joan Wickersham is a freelance writer based in Cambridge.

Illustration by Michelle Thompson

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