Research Agenda — Archives

Libraries for women’s resource centers and women-focused archives have a crucial role to play in recording and preserving records of women’s history and activism. Special collections libraries and archival collections, in general, hold immense resources for the documentation, preservation, and study of women’s lives; however, the normal painstaking, time-consuming activity of archival research can be made even more challenging when one is searching for subjects outside the traditional white male elite.


Gerson (2001, in Buss) asserts that archives are not neutral sites of primary research materials but collections developed from specific social assumptions that dictate what documents are valuable. Tucker (2008) asks, how does WHO is archiving affect WHAT gets archived. Mason and Zanish-Belcher (2007) point out that although it’s true that groups underrepresented in society tend to be underrepresented in archives, there are other factors that influence the archival record. The authors explain that how we define “underrepresented” depends upon context, and they issue cautionary points for women’s archives on the subject of collecting: for example, women’s archives of today may have a feminist bias or fail to document groups that do not share, or actively oppose, these values. Finally, a shift from “women” as an exclusive study of historical research to “gender” has created collecting challenges for archivists and librarians (Sachs, 2008).

  • What is the representation of women within the archivist profession?
  • What do current institutional priorities dictate about collecting and what are the implications for preserving the historical record of women?
  • To what extent are women’s archives and special collections engaged in adaptive methods of soliciting collections to reach groups for whom traditional methods of soliciting donations do not work well?
  • What groups are currently missing from the historical record? What groups, outside of traditional women’s & feminist studies, are missing from women’s archives?
  • What oral history projects need to be taken up to make the records as complete as possible?
  • How is the transformation of libraries into interactive community creations shifting the focus to impact local archives? How is this affecting the collecting of women’s studies & feminist materials? Who is overseeing the metadata for accessing this information? IS metadata being attached to this information?

Description and Access

Archival processing is a laborious and costly endeavor and even though few collections are processed to the item level, processing of unique and primary source materials has not kept up with acquisitions for decades. As more emphasis is placed on the rare and unique materials in special collections libraries and archives for their research value and ability to reflect the unique identity of a particular library, there is pressure to expose the hidden collections (backlogs of unprocessed materials). Greene and Meissner (2005) created a stir in the archival world with their article, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” which called for the elimination of some preservation activities and the establishment of acceptable minimums for processing benchmarks in order to make more materials available to users in an adequate, useable form.

Gerson (2001, in Buss) pointed to the fact that women’s papers are often found in collections headed by the names of men (archival practice is to list a collection under the creator of a group of records) as one of the challenges associated with researching women in archives. On the other hand, in noting the disparity between archival and academic (in scholarly writing) description of diaries, Beattie (2001, in Buss) offered a number of suggestions for improving archival descriptions to diaries and other personal records.

  • With emphasis on “More Product, Less Process,” what are the implications for access to women’s materials in special collections?
  • To what extent have special collections and archives opened up archival description, allowing users of records to create archival metadata through tagging digital images, annotating finding aids, or adding their own descriptions and what are the implication for access to women’s papers?
  • How is the social web affecting access to women’s studies & feminist materials?

Research Tools

Gerson (2001, in Buss) offered methodologies for locating female subjects in the archive, and Chmielewski (2004) provided an overview of major resources for women’s history archives in the United States. These resources are still immensely useful.

  • What major resources for the study of women’s and gender history have been made available since the publication of Women’s History Archives (2004)?
  • What resources for the study of women’s and gender history are not represented by research tools / are not in public awareness?
  • What archives on women exist outside the U.S., Great Britain & Canada for a more global perspective?
  • How are new tools (post-2008) affecting researching women’s archives (WorldCat Local, etc)?


In many ways the digital revolution has both helped and complicated the task of preserving and making accessible the historical record of women’s lives. Chmielewski (2004) pointed out that even though archivists and librarians have begun using the web as a tool to disseminate information about the location of archival resources on women, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Few collections are processed to the item level; however, metadata is needed at that level when collections are digitized if they are to be accessible.

  • To what extent are women’s archives and special collections engaged in digitizing unique holdings? What funding, selection, and workflow models have they adopted?
  • Have the digitization of collections and the subsequent creation of item-level metadata improved access to women’s papers that are found in collections headed by the names of men?

Archiving Electronic Materials

Women’s lives and, consequently, activism are playing out in the online environment.

Resources that are important to the historical record and the study of women are available only in electronic format.

  • What is being done/could be done to archive women’s online activism such as the League of Women Voters email Action Alert network?
  • What is being done to archive other online feminist and women’s studies information (ezines, weblogs, etc.)?