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Schlesinger Library Update

by Marilyn A. Dunn, Executive Director of Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and Librarian of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study


The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America is a special collections library that documents women’s lives in the past and present, for the future. It is a resource for studying and writing about the historical, political, social, religious, economic, and leisure activities of all Americans. Because special collections libraries have limited hours and unique and rare material which does not circulate, they are frequently challenging to researchers. Removing as many of the barriers to use as possible is a primary goal at the Schlesinger Library. This update will highlight a few programs that actively seek to put our material in researchers’ hands with alacrity and ease.

Digitization and delivery. Since its beginning in 2009, the library’s digitization program has grown to include more than 425,000 manuscript items, hundreds of audiotapes, television programs, thousands of photographs and many scrapbooks, representing an investment of nearly $2 million. The program is focused in two areas: premier 19th-century collections in their entirety, and high-demand collections documenting African American women’s experience. Among these are the Susan B. Anthony Collection, the Blackwell Family Collections, the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Papers and the Beecher-Stowe Family Collections. Additionally, the Black Women’s Oral History Collection, the Papers of Dorothy West (Harlem Renaissance writer), teaching tapes of the poet June Jordan, and the television shows of activist and civil rights attorney Flo Kennedy have been completed. The library began ingesting collections into Suite Spot, a delivery platform originally developed at the Harvard Law School Library that was the object of six months of programming enhancements by Schlesinger Library staff, who also added thousands of tags to create additional access points. Digital collections may be accessed from the library’s webpage.

Support for researchers. All seats in the Schlesinger’s reading room are equipped with hover cameras that allow researchers to image, save to laptops, and take away images of documents that are vital to their scholarship. Among our treasured researchers are a large number of undergraduates who have been introduced to the library through classroom activities. In the past two years, research librarians have been full partners with faculty members Laurel Ulrich and Tim McCarthy, whose students have become part of the extended Schlesinger community by accepting work-study positions or by receiving a Pforzheimer research grant for undergraduate students at Harvard. Grants, about 30 annually, also bring in graduate students from across the country, who are working on dissertation topics from maternal health to presidential politics; as well as scholars from across the globe who are preparing journal and monographic publications. In the previous 10 years, over 1,100 books and an inestimable number of journal articles have cited collections at the Schlesinger Library.

Collections and expediting processing. In the spring of 2015, Schlesinger acquired from reproductive rights activist Bill Baird its largest collection ever. Representing both sides of the contraception and abortion rights debates, the collection of pro-life and pro-choice materials arrived in 700 cartons and crates. Estimates range from three to five years for two full-time processors, plus time from the conservator, book, serial, photo and film catalogers, to make this collection useable. At the Schlesinger, we continue to experiment with using technology to expedite processing and decrease the time it takes to make collections ready. We have sponsored four workshops on technology and archival processing, with another scheduled for spring 2016. Our goal: get this collection into circulation much more quickly.

Article written by Marilyn A. Dunn.
Article published on September 22, 2015.