A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women's
History and Culture in the United States
Reviewed by Anne Sarah Rubin
The rise of the Internet over the past decade has revolutionized the way that historians do their research, and arguably the greatest change has come with the digitization of library and archival catalogs. Scholars can now do preliminary research from home, making research trips more efficient and productive. The Library of Congress has been a leader in making its resources available online, through both its American Memory site and the larger catalog as a whole. Nevertheless, the virtual Library of Congress can often seem as daunting and overwhelming as the physical one. The American Women Gateway seeks to make the collections more accessible, and for the most part it succeeds admirably in this regard.
A very helpful "Overview" explains the origins of the site as a print guide published in 2001 and how the online version differs from the print one. This overview should be a model for similar research archives. Not only does it present information clearly and concisely, but it explains the mission behind the guide, the types of records one might encounter, and provides strategies for searching and interpreting results. The thoughtful preparation and analysis provided in the guide are unusual in a web resource.
The guide describes a site designed to keep scrolling to a minimum, standardize the information between departments as much as possible, and present an attractive yet simple interface for users. The guide itself consists of a dozen sections (corresponding to the various departments of the Library), including government records, rare books and manuscripts, recorded sound and music, moving images, and the American Folklife Center. The section for each department is further subdivided into an introduction, discussion of the collections in general, and then discussions of specific collections. Each department also includes a link to contact information and visiting hours. The logical and intuitive organization makes the site easy to navigate, and gives suggestions of sometimes unexpected avenues for research into women's lives. The essays are credited to the original authors in the print guide, which also presents a welcome change from the often authorless World Wide Web.
In addition to the twelve departments, the American Women Gateway includes several topical essays, some of which focus on a specific document (for example, the 1780 broadside "The Sentiments of an American Woman"), others on an event (for example, the 1913 Suffrage march), and others on an idea (for example, the image of women in pre-1800 America). The main page also has links to webcasts on topics like Rosie the Riveter, specific books, and various Library symposia. These are all good introductions to specific elements of the vast collections of the Library of Congress.
The comprehensiveness of the Gateway is both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness. The strengths are immediately obvious; the problems are less so. For all its ease of navigation, the Gateway is still overwhelming, especially to the inexperienced researcher or casual visitor. In large part this is a function of its organization by document type, as opposed to topically or chronologically. The topical essays are very useful, but there are only seven of them. Students and teachers would find the site difficult to use. But scholars, and especially scholars planning a research trip to the Library of Congress, will find time spent at the Gateway to be quite rewarding.
Anne Sarah Rubin is Assistant Professor of American History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She has worked extensively with electronic media and received both the first eLincoln Prize for the best digital project in American Civil War History and The James Harvey Robinson Prize for The Valley of the Shadow: The Eve of War (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000) which she co-authored with Ed Ayers. Rubin's most recent work is entitled, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill: The University North Carolina Press, 2005).
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