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The Graduate and Professional School Libraries

Schlesinger Library

Report of Marilyn Dunn, Executive Director


Following a three-year period of disruptive changes, including a building renovation, a staff restructuring, and turnover in executive directors, the Schlesinger Library returned to its primary function in this fiscal year: documenting women of the past and present for the future. Statistics show a stupendous rise in productivity, demonstrating that the staff relished its return to serving the library’s core mission.

The Schlesinger Library supports the mission of the Radcliffe Institute in its commitment to the study of women, gender, and society. Unlike many libraries that attempt to be all things to all users, the Schlesinger’s mission is narrowly focused. Programmatically, the library has only two main channels—collections and researchers. Our challenge is to choose collections that match the current or future research interests of our numerically modest but expert library patrons. As a new member of the Schlesinger staff, I have worked to comprehend the breadth and depth of our collections and to compare them with other repositories that document American women. A search of Google Scholar indicates that over 12,000 publications cite collections in this library, while less than half that number cite the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, and only 109 and 7 citations acknowledge the Sallie Bingham Center at Duke and the [Sophie] Newcombe Archives at Tulane, respectively. Without equivocation, the Schlesinger is the premier collection for the study of American women’s history, since our collections tower above all others.

The research community enthusiastically returned to our new reading room, and inquiries flowed into the public service department via e-mail. The number of in-person reference queries rose by 26% compared to the same period last year (February–June), from 879 in 2005 to 1,112 in 2006. More than 1,000 electronic reference questions were answered, and the number of phone questions remained high as well (exceeding 900). On the other hand, the number of registered researchers and the number of reference questions have both declined by more than 50% over the past five years. While our current user base is a strong and enlivening presence, we believe that our collections are worthy of a wider audience. In the coming year we hope to analyze use patterns, identify potential users, and develop mechanisms to alert them to the Schlesinger collections and to their extraordinary value in writing US history. For this reason, and to heighten security of collections, Public Services developed a new patron/materials database that will be installed and ready to use when the fall semester begins.

The book department added over 3,000 titles this year compared to 82 in FY 2005. Similarly, the manuscript division acquired more than 754 linear feet of material in 235 collections: 100 collections more than last year.

The book curator implemented an approval plan that expedites ordering by providing a profile of desired material to a “jobber” who sends monthly shipments on approval to the library. This year titles were added in our traditional areas of collecting such as culinary arts, history, and women’s studies, and in addition, collecting expanded into new areas of popular culture such as zines, graphic novels, religious fiction and religious conduct books.

Manuscript curator Kathryn Jacob returned to her position (from having been acting executive director) with an accumulated backlog of contacts and offers to be acted upon and was successful in obtaining close to 50 new collections. Additionally, 137 contacts with donors and potential donors were made, 63 in-person visits were made, and 46 certificates of deed were completed. Negotiating with donors can be a protracted and delicate process, and two major collections—those of Marjorie Henderson Buell, the creator of “Little Lulu,” and Barbara Seaman, the noted women’s health activist—were worked upon all year. Delivery, however, will not be made until the 2007 budget cycle.

Both the book and manuscript curators established stronger ties with rare-materials dealers, which led to several important and exciting purchases. An example is the purchase of three 18th-century daguerreotypes and one tintype of mothers breastfeeding, a rare and new area of collecting for the Schlesinger. Of course, quality of collections is paramount, and many additions in this year’s yield of manuscript materials add significantly to the library’s documentation of women’s activism and feminism, women’s health, and politics. These include the papers of notable women that range from Patricia Ireland, former president of NOW, to Kay Dickersin, epidemiologist and advocate for breast cancer survivors, to Kip Tiernan, activist for Boston’s poor and homeless women.

In both the book and manuscript units of collection services, strides were made in addressing the backlog of materials. Cataloging of the American Institute of Wine and Food collection was completed. A plan was devised and implemented that allocates time to backlog while maintaining current cataloging of new materials. In the manuscript unit, 12 collections amounting to more than 246 feet were processed. Among them were the Susan Brownmiller papers, the M. F. K. Fisher papers, the records of Harvard’s “Genes and Gender Collective,” the Sheila Tobias collection, and the Women’s Community Health Center records. Container lists were created for 35 collections, and 250 finding aids were successfully marked up for display in HOLLIS.

With special initiative funding from the Institute, the Radcliffe College archivist led a team of students and organized the digitization of a walloping 9,600 photographs, which they then cataloged in OLIVIA. This is an extraordinary achievement.

Under the leadership of Nancy Cott, the library awarded 35 grants amounting to nearly $62,000.

This year’s applicant pool was an exciting mix of topics and scholars requesting amounts that varied from $500 to $3,000.

The library hosted many successful events during the past year. We mounted two exhibits that opened with well-attended receptions. “Women and War” was on display from September through March and supported the Radcliffe Institute gender conference on the same topic. A second exhibit, “Summer Camp for Girls: Building Friendships and Campfires” is currently on display until October. Additionally, we hosted two receptions accompanied by displays of material: one paying tribute to our founding mothers and the passage of the 19th amendment, and a second celebrating the life and work of Izola Forrester, actress and writer. The library was also the site of a book signing and highly successful reception for Elaine Yaffe, who wrote an authorized biography of Mary Ingraham Bunting, the former president of Radcliffe College. This celebration coincided with the Bunting family’s announcement of the gift of Mrs. Bunting’s personal papers to the library. Researchers offered brown-bag lunches to share their findings with staff. The library co-sponsored a public conversation with Professor George Chauncey on his work in progress, which continues to 1970 the history begun in his earlier book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940; and also co-sponsored a distinguished panel discussion, “Writing 20th-Century Lives, Biography as History,” moderated by Nancy Cott. Last but not least, the Radcliffe film series returned with a movie once a month featuring the work of women filmmakers.

The Schlesinger Library Council met twice, in fall and spring. The agendas included major presentations and discussions of the opportunities and challenges of digital materials and digital collecting, a demonstration of the Open Collection Program’s Women Working, 1800–1930, and a presentation about the collections survey effort of the spring and discussion of the direction of collection development in the near future.