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Searching American Memory for Women's History Materials

What Are You Searching?
How Are You Searching?
When You Find Something--What Next?
Not Finding What You Need?


Looking for women's history materials online at the Library of Congress? A wide array of digitized primary sources highlighting aspects of American women's lives—including manuscripts, pamphlets, books, maps, photographs, moving images, and sound recordings—are accessible through the Library's American Memory Historical Collections Web site.

The American Women Research Guide provides links to some of these digital materials, but you will find many more by searching American Memory directly.
Quick Tips
Search across all collections to figure out which ones interest you; then use individual collections' search and display features to delve more deeply.
Use the Collection Finder to narrow your search by subject, date range, region, or original format of materials.
Search collections by keywords, but also try browsing by subject, author/creator name, title, or geographic location (see Choosing Search Words).
Consider the fullest range of applicable keywords, and be aware that usage has changed over time: "woman," "lady," "girl," "missus," "Mrs." and "Miss" all yield unique search results.
Full-text searching is available within specific text-rich collections (see Full Text Search Options)
See American Memory search tips, and visit the Learning Page, for more ideas about searching.
See The Learning Page for K-12 resources for teachers and students, as well as pathfinders, collection connections, and workshops of interest to all American Memory users. March 2003 featured a women's history forum.
The Library of Congress Online Catalog includes digital resources as well as books. And don't forget the books!

Titles of some American Memory sites readily suggest that they contain information about women:

The presence of material relating to women is less apparent when skimming the titles of other American Memory collections, but women's experiences and perspectives are richly represented throughout the collections. Examples include:

The discussion below will help you navigate American Memory resources with a special eye towards researching women's history effectively online. It also addresses some frequently asked questions about using American Memory materials, pointing to sources of further information. Chances are that as you travel through the American Memory site, you will encounter intriguing and informative materials that you didn't even know you wanted.


What Are You Searching?

Keep in mind that the Library's online collections are representative rather than comprehensive, and that they principally contain collections of primary materials. These materials are generally grouped by collection and are accompanied by special features to provide context for researchers and aid in the interpretation of the items. What you won't find here are text-book style summaries of historical persons, events, or movements.

When you type search strings into an American Memory search page, it is helpful to understand what data is being searched. Generally, there are two types of data that American Memory searches:

  1. Descriptive Information: Many collections include "descriptive information" or "bibliographic records," which are essentially summary descriptions of the items. Each summary may include:

    • title of the item
    • names of people and organizations involved in creating the item
    • date the item was made
    • physical medium of the original item
    • information about subjects represented in the item

    Some parts of the description (for example, the title and some notes) may use words found on or with the original material. Other parts of the description (for example, subject headings) have been supplied by Library staff to help relate items to one another or to explain something about the item. In addition to the summary information, the record includes a link for viewing or listening to the item.

  2. Full Text of Materials: Many collections featuring textual materials offer full-text searching of each item. For instance, collections that feature full text in which you will see women's experiences particularly well reflected include:

* With few exceptions, bibliographic records, rather than full texts, are used for cross-collection searches (see the American Memory help document, What American Memory resources are included in this search? for further information about cross-collection searching).

* At this time, Special Presentations and other contextual materials accompanying the collections are generally not included in American Memory searches, although they may be searched using the Advanced Search feature that links from the Library's home page.

* When you are searching a single collection that offers both a "Descriptive Information" and a "Full Text" search, you should try using both types of searches for maximum results.


How Are You Searching?

There are several ways to search in American Memory. For best results you will want to try a number of the options described below.

Try cross-collection and single-collection searching

In most cases, you will want to start with a cross-collection keyword search before moving to more specific searches or "browses" within individual collections. Use the cross-collection search to identify collections with materials of interest to you. Another way to locate collections of interest is to use the Collection Finder categories (Broad Topics, Original Format, Time, Place, Library Division, and so forth), which will provide a list of collections relevant to the category. Note that searches started from A Collection Finder page limit results to the collections listed on that page.

Focusing on a single collection will enable you to take advantage of special features such as:

  • browse lists of subjects, titles, names of authors or others involved in creating the materials, and geographic locations
  • full-text searching of the items in the collection
  • special display or sorting features the collection may offer
  • Special Presentations and background material

When searching individual collections use both "Search Descriptive Information" and "Search Full Text," if available

Most American Memory collections offer keyword searching. A keyword search simply matches the words or phrases you enter to text associated with an item. The text may be in the bibliographic record ("Descriptive Information") or in the full text, depending on which type of search you choose. Keep in mind that searching full text for events, places, and people may uncover material relevant to you but peripheral to the main theme of the work (and therefore, not mentioned in the summary Descriptive Information).

Example: Try searching Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals for references to Fanny Kemble.

--> Enter fanny kemble in the Search Descriptive Information (Bibliographic Records) box. You retrieve a handful of documents in which the exact phrase "fanny kemble" appears either in the title or as the author of the work.

--> Enter fanny kemble in the Search Full Text box. By setting the options to retrieve a maximum of a thousand documents or parts of documents (see below), you retrieve more than two hundred references to Fanny Kemble found in the text of the documents themselves.

Use keywords typical of the time period you are researching

Particularly when you are keyword searching the full text of items in a collection, try likely synonyms, keeping in mind the terminology of the time period you are researching and selecting the "match any of these words" option.


--> Words that might refer to women are: girl, lass, lady, wife, Mrs., Miss, mistress, mother, grandmother, aunt, niece, female, maid, maiden, matron, feminine.

--> Terms that may yield materials relating to childbirth (or events likened to childbirth) might include: childbed, midwife, birthing, pregnancy, and parturition.

Consult the American Memory help document, Choosing Search Words, and the Learning Page Synonym List for more ideas.

Start with specific terms and then expand to more general terms if necessary

First try the specific names of the persons, organizations, or places you are researching. If you do not get enough results, add more synonyms or use broader subjects.


--> If you are looking for missionary women, try women missionaries before you try women religion.

--> If you are exploring the activities of actress Fanny Kemble, try Fanny Kemble before you try actresses or theater.

Consult the American Memory help document Choosing Search Words for more ideas.


Adjust search options to broaden or narrow your search

American Memory's keyword search allows you to enter multiple words and gives you the option of searching at various levels of precision:
  • You can match any of the words you enter, match all of the words in any order or placement, or match the exact phrase.
  • You can choose to search for variations of your words, such as plurals, or confine the search to the exact terms you enter.
  • You can specify the maximum number of records to return to you, up to five thousand.
  • You can select to search collections limited to certain formats of material (e.g., photos and prints; maps; motion pictures)
  • In some collections you can specify which parts of the bibliographic record you wish to search (e.g., author/creator fields, subject fields) or retain the default to search all of the available fields.
Your results will list first those items that matched your search most closely, followed by those that matched less closely but that might still be useful. Depending upon the results you are getting, you may want to adjust one or more of these options to make your search more inclusive or more precise.

--> Try entering women's suffrage, setting the options to "match this exact phrase" and "match the words exactly." The resulting records are all probably quite relevant, including quite a number labeled "Woman Suffrage Collection" (Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921).

--> Now repeat the search, but change the options to "include all the words," "include word variants," and "return a maximum" of 5000 records (don't use a comma when entering the number). Your search will retrieve many more hits. More than one hundred additional items from the woman suffrage collection are found this way. Paging through the entries, it may not always be immediately apparent where the words "women/woman/women's" and "suffrage" appeared in the retrieved material, but you can read quite far into the list of retrieved records before you find something like the Senate Journal for Tuesday, Jan. 5, 1864, which mentions "suffrage" but not in connection with women.

See American Memory help documents Bibliographic Record Search Options and Full Text Search Options for further information.

Take advantage of subject headings that gather related material

In some collections, those who prepared the collection have assisted in identifying items with related subject matter or that take a similar form by including subject terms (e.g., Women--Employment) or genre terms (e.g., Diaries) in the bibliographic records. Sometimes these terms are taken from the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), a standard list often used in library cataloging of books and other materials; sometimes the headings are drawn from other sources.

One way to take advantage of these subject and genre terms is to consult the "browse by subject" pages included with many collections. If you find an item that seems applicable to your topic, you can also use the linked subject headings in its bibliographic record or other description to find any additional items assigned the same heading.

The "Cataloging the Collection" or "Building the Digital Collection" documents accompanying each American Memory collection usually contain information about subject headings and other cataloging matters. For a discussion of subject and genre headings, in general, and how to find them, see Searching LC Catalogs.

Use alternate display options

American Memory search results are displayed as a "List View" by default, but the "Gallery View" option is an important tool for multiformat research. Select the "Gallery View" button to see thumbnail images of visual materials and icons indicating the format of others. Gallery View can help you find a specific image quickly or visually sort your results by medium rather than by title or collection.


When You Find Something--What Next?

Bookmarking what you find

When you search American Memory Historical Collections, the results are returned to you as a temporary Web page that displays only the links you have requested. These temporary search results last only a few hours before disappearing. If you find something in American Memory that you would like to revisit, you will need either to repeat the original search or to access and note what is known as the page's "permanent URL." For instructions on finding the permanent URL see Linking & Bookmarking in American Memory.

Downloading materials

If you find useful materials online, you may want to make a copy for yourself for further reference, either in the form of an electronic file or as a paper printout. Saving American Memory resources to your local hard disk (or a removable storage media such as a Zip disk or CD-RW) is fairly straightforward, although the details vary slightly depending on your browser and operating system.

In all cases, one distinction is important.

  • If the data you wish to save is in the form of a Web page or a text-only display, you should use the browser's "save as" feature, which is usually under the "file" menu.
  • If the materials you wish to save are image, sound, or moving image files (this includes page images of textual sources), you should right-click on the item itself (or click-hold using a Macintosh computer) and use the browser's menu to "save image as" or "save file as" accordingly. Some browsers give you the option of viewing an image file without any surrounding text ("view image"), which can be useful for checking what exactly will be saved.

For more on accessing the various file formats used in American Memory, see How To View.

Printing materials

Printing directly from your browser window will usually give you a useful working image, but in some cases you may wish to print a primary page image only, hiding from view the textual framing materials that American Memory associates with it. To do this you will need to download the images to your computer (see above) and open them in an imaging program such as the Windows Imaging accessory, or Photoshop.

Multiple versions of the same image may be available. Because "dots per inch" vary widely between the typical computer screen and the typical printer, for quick printing or onscreen viewing you will want to use the ".jpg" version, but for high-quality printed copies, you may want to download and save the "high resolution" TIFFs where available.

Citing American Memory resources

Most of what you need to know about citing American Memory resources can be found on the Learning Page's Citing Electronic Sources.

Not Finding What You Need?

If, even after using the techniques suggested above, you do not find the number or kinds of materials you expect, it may be because they are not available on the American Memory site or because you need additional information to locate them. You might consider consulting:
  • Library of Congress Online Catalog: Contains records for many, but not all, of the Library's books, serials, computer files, manuscript collections, cartographic materials, music, sound recordings, and visual materials, including some digital items not found in American Memory (see Searching LC Catalogs for searching tips)
  • American Women Research Guide: Provides in-depth descriptions of Library of Congress resources, both digital and non-digital, relating to women's history, with tips about searching various Library collections
  • Online Exhibitions: Include many digital images of items from the Library collections presented in thematic contexts (see Searching Online Exhibitions for searching tips)
  • Search the Library of Congress Web Site: Searches the Library of Congress's Web pages generally, excluding specific databases such as the Online Catalog and American Memory's digitized holdings but including contextual documents such as Special Presentations that accompany American Memory materials online
  • American Memory reference staff through the online Ask a Librarian service.


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