When I was pursuing my Ph.D. thirty years ago, my dissertation directors made certain that I became thoroughly familiar with what was being called the new social history, as well as the newly burgeoning field of African American history. But the thought of looking at the role of women as a distinct area of study did not occur to me, nor was it expected of me by my graduate committee.
Fortunately, the study of the past has changed since then, for almost any graduate student in American history today is expected to be well-grounded in the history of women. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of a number of scholars, women's history has developed into an important field of study. These historians have demonstrated that the experiences of women form a significant element of the American story.
Although men traditionally have been viewed as the chroniclers of society's activities, scholars of women's history have shown us that the experiences of women provide remarkable insights into the past. The written records left by women that I have encountered in my research described the joys and sorrows of daily life, the warmth of love and friendships, the strengths and weaknesses of women, and the complex relationship between genders. Those observations provided distinctive perspectives on the times in which the writers lived. To ignore information in such sources would be to neglect a key ingredient in the historical record.
Since its creation in 1831, the Virginia Historical Society has developed an extraordinarily rich collection of manuscript materials spanning four centuries of the commonwealth's history and covering every corner of the Old Dominion. Although not collected with a mind toward women's history, tens of thousands of letters, diaries, official records, reminiscences, commonplace books, and numerous other documents together form an invaluable source for the study of women in Virginia, the South, and the nation.
Despite the richness of these collections, most had been processed, cataloged, and described by our predecessors in ways that provided inadequate access by subject within the field of women's history or social history. Although our traditional cataloging system provided a wealth of information on personal names, any scholar searching our collections with a set of broad-based questions had to devote considerable time and energy to sorting through manuscripts that might or might not relate to his or her topic of study. Our staff realized that if we described these collections in a different way, we could provide new perspectives on Virginia history. Anyone using this guide soon will realize the breadth of information, long obscure, that is being made available by such detailed and retooled finding aids. I know that if information like that described in this guide had been available to me, my dissertation would have been the better for it.
Since issuing the published version of this guide in 1996, the VHS has undertaken a retrospective conversion of its descriptive records of manuscript collections, which has included a reassessment of additional selected materials and the inclusion of greatly enhanced subject access points in online collection- and series-level records, all through the auspices of generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The new entries we have been able to compile as a result of that conversion effort has allowed us to enhance and enlarge the original guide that we now offer in electronic format. The guide itself, specifically focused on subject matter related to aspects of women's history, continues to open access to appropriate materials in even greater detail than those enhanced collection records, by their very nature, can provide.
This important project, in both its incarnations—a published guide and the now updated and expanded version offered electronically to potential users—would not have been possible without the help of many people and of two agencies—the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. A generous grant from the NEH provided necessary funding for the initial project in the mid-1990s, which resulted in the publication of a hardcopy version of the guide that we are now calling the first edition. In 2005, the Delmas Foundation, already a supporter of the society's automation program, provided a timely grant that enabled project staff to review and update existing entries from the published version, create new entries from discoveries made during the restrospective conversion project, and both process and more deeply analyze some newly acquired collections that proved valuable additions to our holdings in general, and especially to our resources in women's studies.
Charles F. Bryan, Jr.
Former VHS President and CEO
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web site do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
How to use this guide |