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News, University News

Women Collections portal increases access to archives highlighting women

Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, John Hay Library launch new portal

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 12, 2019

A new research tool is allowing students and scholars to easily uncover archived collections by and about women. The Pembroke Center hopes to have 51 percent of the Hay’s special collection be by or about women.

Resting under layers of dust in attics and basements across the country lie piles of unpublished letters, manuscripts and artifacts preserving significant moments and historical figures. Now, the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, in tandem with the John Hay Library, has launched a Women Collections portal to facilitate public access to archival pieces highlighting women.

Among its many goals, the Pembroke Center works to preserve information on the history of women, said Pembroke Center Archivist Mary Murphy.  To help the Center carry out its mission, Murphy goes on treasure hunts, searching for relics created by or focusing on women to be repackaged, organized and then delivered to the Hay Annex.

The library then distributes them to anyone who requests the documents for their own research. Additionally, the library has created collection guides, which can be found online for ease of access. But before new organizational methods were put in place, searching on the library’s “Collections A-Z” catalog  proved  to be a challenge — there are more than 250 named collections  and 147 of those are by and about women.

Now, these collections are organized under the “Women” tab on the bottom, right-hand side of the Brown University Library’s Collections A-Z page, Murphy said. “We combed through every single collection to make sure that we grabbed them all. Many were missing, … many were floating around (in the catalog), and they were just kind of buried, and so we brought them out,” Murphy added.

This portal was built thanks to the work of the Hay’s “Equity and Inclusion Working Group,” which was created to help ensure that the library was maintaining and promoting inclusivity through its initiatives within the Special Collections. The groups aimed to create portals to more specific topics, which would make them more accessible, said Manuscripts Processing Archivist and chair of the group Karen Eberhart.

Murphy was the driving force behind the creation of the women’s portal. She took on the responsibility of going through and properly tagging all of the works pertaining to women, Eberhart said.

“This is a deep partnership between the Pembroke Center and the John Hay Library, and it’s been a good one. … There was a gap in collecting around women’s history, so the Pembroke Center and the Hay teamed up, and that’s been actually really fruitful. It’s a rare example of a very powerful partnership,” Murphy said. “Many libraries have that gap, but Brown actually decided to do something about it.”

Now, the A-Z portal will allow researchers within and beyond the University community to access archival documents about women’s history in a more accessible way, Eberhart said. Murphy expects usage of the collections to continue growing. Since August 2016, “research requests for use of our collections has gone way up” because the Pembroke Center has been promoting and providing access to more collections, she said. “With additional cataloging and adding new points of entry into these collections, use rates will go up.”

The two principal archives of the Pembroke Center are the Christine Dunlap Farnham Archive, which features the history of women in Rhode Island and at the University, and the Feminist Theory Archive, which contains papers by scholars that revolve around women, gender and sexuality, Murphy said. Even for those not studying women, the archive can provide a different perspective for historians working on a range of topics, she added.

“We provide (all students and scholars) with resources to learn about the ways that women have always participated in (and) affected various subjects,” Murphy said.  “In order to have a more accurate, fuller picture for student studies, for scholar studies, women’s materials must be there. And now they will find them.”

The Pembroke Center’s long-term goal is to have 51 percent of the Hay’s Special Collections be by or about women. Currently, about 25 percent of the collections comprise these works, Murphy said.

One of the featured Special Collections on women features Mary Ann Sorrentino, who played an important role in reproductive rights activism in Rhode Island. Her available works include papers that reflect her excommunication from the Catholic Church and her views on abortion.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy  at Florida Atlantic University Lauren Guilmette has used the Feminist Theory Archive for her own scholarly work on the late Teresa Brennan, a feminist philosopher and former professor at the same university, and has accessed both Brennan’s published and unpublished papers through the archives, though she did not conduct her search through the new Women portal. “I found out that lots of other leading feminist theorists have said that they’re going to give their papers (to the archive) or already have, which is really exciting because, … for a feminist philosopher, … it will become our archive,” Guilmette said. “It’s wonderful to make that material more accessible.”

“Students come and use these collections because (they) are directly connected to history,” Murphy said, adding that the archival materials are “just so rich beyond anything that you can use that’s digital … The smell, the feeling of the letters, it’s just alive.”

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