New Beginnings

Women workers take part in a union demonstration, ca. 1981-1983, Photo by Bettye LaneWomen workers take part in a union demonstration, ca. 1981-1983, Photo by Bettye Lane
By Jane Kamensky, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director, Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences

As I write, my bookshelves are empty, and my sunny corner office on the first floor of the Schlesinger Library is piled high with boxes, awaiting our move to temporary quarters. Over the next nine months, the Library’s staff will acquire and process collections in the buildings of the former Bunting Institute on Concord Avenue; researchers will make use of a reading room relocated to Fay House. All the while, a thorough renovation will transform the Schlesinger. Next fall, we’ll return to a 1906 building restored and remade for a 21st-century library, with new spaces for teaching and learning, a digital research suite, and an exhibition gallery nearly doubled in size. 

In many ways, this renovation, which begins at the close of our 75th anniversary year, marks the end of a long chapter of the Schlesinger’s history and the beginning of a new one. Over three-quarters of a century, our collections have grown in ways that would have been hard to imagine in 1943: from an initial gift of some 30 cartons of manuscripts focused on the campaign for American women’s suffrage to more than 4,100 manuscript collections and 150,000 printed volumes documenting many facets of the lives, work, and thought of American women from the nation’s beginnings to the present day. Researchers continually discover new American histories in our collections; this year, we hosted more than 3,500 visits to the Carol K. Pforzheimer Reading Room, an increase of 12.5 percent from the previous year. Even our oldest holdings are renewed by the scrutiny of new eyes with fresh questions.

Two young participants in the Chicago N.O.W. Walkathon on Women's Equality Day, August 1980, Photo by Dorothea Jacobson-WenzelTwo young participants in the Chicago N.O.W. Walkathon on Women's Equality Day, August 1980, Photo by Dorothea Jacobson-WenzelBut we also need new collections to tell new stories. In recent years, increasing the diversity of our collections along racial, ethnic, class, regional, and ideological lines has been our highest strategic priority. Last year, 60 percent of what we added to our holdings reflected that priority. Those acquisitions include the papers of well-known writers and thinkers such as Jennifer Finney Boylan, Angela Y. Davis, and Lani Guinier along with the extraordinary records of more ordinary women from all across the United States, from the 19th century to the present.  

This fall, as we ring out the old building, my colleagues and I have begun a new collections initiative to better honor our commitment to documenting the full breadth of American women’s experiences. In October, a working group on Asian American women’s collections convened for the first time. The group, composed of activists and community leaders, faculty members, and alumnae who represent a variety of Asian American experiences, is helping the Library develop particular emphases in our drive to document women and families who came to the United States from many parts of the Pacific Rim, and whose journeys, lives, and contributions have transformed modern America.  

The Schlesinger’s Asian American collections initiative builds on small beginnings, much as the Library itself did in 1943. Our current Asian American holdings include the papers of the Beijing-born author, businesswoman, and Republican Party activist Anna Chennault and oral history projects centered on Chinese American women and Cambodian American women and youth. We also hold numerous Euro-American women’s collections documenting diplomatic, human rights, and missionary work in South and East Asia. These collections, while important, are plainly insufficient to capture Asian American women’s significance in areas of American life ranging from the arts to labor activism to higher education to the prevention of family violence to popular culture and the beauty industry. As the United States reckons with its place in what has been called the Pacific Century, the Library is excited to connect with new communities of immigrant women and their descendants in California, New York, the Midwest, and beyond. We hope that by the time we cut the ribbon on our refreshed space next year, we can report on the first fruits of this new collecting initiative. Asian American women are remaking the world every day. We expect that their archives will transform our understanding of American history for many years to come. 

Search Year: 
2018