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The General Collections

Sheridan Harvey*

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History. Daniel Chester French. Sculpture, Main Reading Room, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. Photograph by Anne Day. With the permission of Anne Day.

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Researchers sitting in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress are surrounded by images of women. From the top of the ornate dome, the female form of Human Understanding lifts the veil of ignorance to encourage scholars below in their pursuit of truth.

Around the reading room, set high on great pillars, stand statues of eight larger-than-life women who symbolize aspects of civilized life and thought. The statue of History holds a book in one hand and a mirror in the other to reflect the past accurately. While the builders of the Library were following a European tradition of classical symbolism, American suffragists were declaring, “Woman cannot be ignored, or civilization will suffer!”(1909).1 The collections of the Library of Congress, like its decoration, show us our past and tell us women's stories.

Among the Library's earliest acquisitions were Mercy Otis Warren's history of the American Revolution and Phillis Wheatley's poems. As the Library began, so it has continued. Throughout its two-hundred-year history, the Library of Congress has acquired, cataloged, and preserved valuable sources for uncovering the past of women of the United States.

Under the pedestrian name “General Collections,” the Library gathers most of the books and bound periodicals published since 1800 that are useful to searchers of American women's history. Researchers wishing to view materials in the General Collections request them in the

  • Main Reading Room
  • Local History and Genealogy Reading Room
  • Microform Reading Room
  • Area Studies reading rooms
  • Book Service desk in the Adams Building
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Bicycles, [ca. 1914]. Sears, Roebuck and Co. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.

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(Specialized reading rooms hold books and periodicals printed before 1801, music and law materials of all dates; items written in Near Eastern and Asian languages must be requested in appropriate Area Studies reading rooms.) Examples of types of materials held in the General Collections include
  • nineteenth-century ladies' almanacs with hand-painted illustrations
  • Sears, Roebuck catalogs
  • slave narratives
  • congressional reports on women's suffrage
  • published collections of women's letters and diaries
  • lectures presented by women astronomers

When the modern women's movement emerged in the 1960s, many scholars began to explore the lives of women who had come before. As a result of this great upsurge of interest, the Library of Congress collections on women's history have grown enormously in the past three decades. Even before, however, many primary and secondary sources for research on this “newly discovered” topic were already housed at the Library.

Primary and Secondary Sources

When searching for primary sources—fundamental, authoritative, contemporary documents used to prepare later works—historians often overlook the abundance of published primary source material. Women's diaries, correspondence, and autobiographies that have been printed either by the women themselves or someone else, either at the time of composition or centuries later, are primary sources and are found in abundance in the General Collections.

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Mary Ritter Beard, 1946. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-118252 (b&w film copy neg.)

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In addition to primary sources, researchers also look for secondary sources: books and articles describing and analyzing occurrences outside the writer's personal experience. The General Collections hold thousands of volumes of secondary sources. An item can be both a primary and a secondary source. When Mary Ritter Beard published her Woman as Force in History (New York: Macmillan Company, 1946; HQ1121.B36) [catalog record], she had created a secondary source, a history of women. The volume becomes a primary source when later historians examine it as a pioneering contribution to the writing of women's history.

Instead of attempting to describe the innumerable women's history topics that can be researched with items from the General Collections, this site focuses on “types” of materials. Each type could supply evidence for multiple subjects in women's history. Some, like doctoral dissertations, are unusually plentiful at the Library of Congress; others, such as trade journals, have not been fully exploited by historians of women.

Only a few titles from among many possible are given for each type. These examples are meant to suggest how these types of works could be used for future study, to emphasize the need for readers to combine the wide range of uncommon printed sources with traditional and familiar ones, and to entice readers to the Library.

Other Libraries

Library of Congress holdings in U.S. women's history have a breadth and depth that cannot be matched elsewhere, and researchers of topics great and small will find incredible sources among the millions of items in the General Collections. Many other libraries, however, have superb American women's history collections and hold items comparable to those at the Library of Congress. The arrangement of this discussion of the General Collections may prove helpful to researchers using other libraries because it is not the individual items mentioned that are critical, but the types of materials. The sample subject headings and call numbers should lead to similar works in other libraries. Also, the advice on subject searching, especially on finding the most specific subject headings, is applicable to other library catalogs.

*Authored the original chapter in American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (Library of Congress, 2001), from which this online version is derived. Others who contributed to this effort are identified in the Acknowledgments.

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