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Selecting Items for the NAWSA Collection: A Note from the Editor

E. Susan Barber
College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Baltimore

I selected materials for this digital collection during 1992-1993. My work began with a review of the list of materials included in the 1938 Deed of Gift prepared when the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) donated its library to the Library of Congress. I also reviewed a preliminary bibliography prepared by Library of Congress staff members as the project got under way. This process led me to a preliminary identification of 301 items, representing about 50,000 pages.

In my review, I kept in mind the three groups that American Memory proposed to reach: students at both the high school and college levels interested in developing a basic understanding of the suffrage movement; teachers of courses at these levels; and advanced scholars engaged in research. My goal was to assemble a collection that would be of interest to this wide spectrum of users.

The system that American Memory employs to digitize material does not work well with newspapers or large-sheet, columnar printed matter. Thus, with some regret, we decided to exclude newspapers and other serial publications from this collection. Of course, I tried to eliminate duplicates and avoid redundancy. In all cases, I tried to select materials that I thought best represented the NAWSA organization and its place in the woman suffrage campaign.

As I examined each item, I assigned it a numerical value that was later used to sort items in the database. A value of "1" meant that the item definitely should be included in the American Memory collection. A "2" meant the item should be included if space permitted. A "3" meant the item was interesting, but did not necessarily fit into the project's goals. A "4" meant the item was definitely not a candidate for inclusion. On several occasions during the selection process, I sorted the working database to determine the number of pages in each category.

Toward the end of the selection process, it was apparent that the total page count of the higher-rated items had exceeded the 10,000-page limit. This fact led to the idea of providing additional titles to accompany the collection. This supplemental bibliography lists works that received a "2" rating and that should be available in a number of libraries around the United States. Some are older books; others are popular works that have been reprinted in recent years.

Users should note that the collection mirrors the biases of NAWSA's membership. For the most part, it represents the concerns of well-educated, middle- and upper-class white women living in the North, and especially in New England. There is little in the collection to document the role of Southern women or women of color. Working-class women receive a slightly larger share of attention, but, for the most part, the collection details the experiences of the affluent white women who formed the suffrage campaign's leadership cadre. Although I tried wherever possible to correct this imbalance, I was hampered by the limitations of the larger NAWSA library itself. This narrow scope, however, does not impair the value of the collection; it simply means that students and teachers must be aware of its limitations.

The selection process was a both a joy and a trial. The larger NAWSA library contains a wide range of fascinating information on a variety of topics inconsistent with American Memory's goal. For example, the woman suffrage campaign in England, and especially the activities of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) are covered in some detail. In addition, there is some interesting information on such topics as sex and sexuality, women's work, prostitution, marriage and divorce, and dress reform. While all of these topics formed an integral part of the women's rights agenda, I did not recommend them for inclusion unless they discussed the importance of enfranchising women as a solution to perceived problems.

As might be expected, time was a considerable obstacle. My contract limited me to 192 hours of work. This meant that on most occasions I was forced to make quick decisions after a cursory view of the material. Usually, I relied on such criteria as the importance of the author, the significance of the title, and a quick scan--in the case of books--of such things as tables of contents, introductions, prefaces, indices, and conclusions. At times, I skimmed a chapter or two in an effort to determine a source's value.

When I concluded my work on March 31, 1993, I recommended that 165 items be included in the American Memory collection, representing the desired 10,000 pages and a handful of ephemeral and pictorial items. The supplemental bibliography points researchers to about forty additional works of interest that are part of the larger NAWSA library and, for the most part, are available in American libraries.

I would like to thank American Memory for the opportunity to participate in this project, the Rare Book and Special Collection Division for meeting my requests with cheerful and tireless efficiency, and Sheridan Harvey for her assistance throughout the process. In addition, I am extremely grateful to Robyn Muncy, of the University of Maryland, College Park, for recommending me for the project, and to Anne Firor Scott, W. K. Boyd Professor Emerita of History at Duke University, for reviewing my selection process. As a teacher, I am excited by the possibilities contained in the collection for use in the classroom. As a scholar, I was delighted by the depth and breadth of the sources. They opened my mind to new and exciting avenues of research. I look forward with eager anticipation to the completion of the collection.

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