Researching Women's History
by Cassandra Hartnett
U.S. Documents & Women Studies Librarian, University of Washington
In researching women's history, we are uncovering a mostly still-to-be-told story, that of everyday women's lives in our Evergreen State. The Women's History Consortium attempts to bring together diverse paths to finding primary resources about Washington women. By tapping the collections of Washington State musuems, libraries, and historical societies, large and small, we hope to assist you in your own effort to tell the story of women's history. We hope the following research resources, tools and tips will aid your search.
Women's history can be found in all sorts of historical documents and sources. This guide provides an introduction to different types of sources that historian's use and suggestions on where to locate them.
Non-fiction books can provide both an overview and in-depth analysis of a topic, event or person. Many books will include footnotes and bibliography that can lead you to other research and writings on the topic. Learn How to Read a Secondary Source.
Encyclopedias are especially useful for finding quick information on a topic.
Academic Journal Articles
Academic articles, those published in scholarly journals, are the bedrock of most academic disciplines. In the field of historical research, they are secondary sources. They provide an in-depth analysis of narrower topics. Prior to publishing, articles are vetted through a process called peer-review. Most articles include footnotes which can lead you to other material on a topic.
Search for journal articles on women's history by using specialized databases through your local public or college library. Ask your librarian for recommendations.
Two major journals that focus on Pacific Northwest history are:
- Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History: A selection of fulltext articles, including some dealing with women's history, is available freely online via their Topical index to Columbia Articles Online.
- Pacific Northwest Quarterly: "The leading scholarly journal devoted to the history and culture of the northwestern United States, Alaska, and western Canada."
Newspapers are a primary source providing a first rough draft of events. Newspapers with it's advertising, illustrations and editorials are especially useful in getting a feel for life of the time. Since most newspapers are local in scope, there is good coverage of local issues.
Many larger public and academic libraries will have local newspaper backfiles on microfilm. Many also have the Historic New York Times available online.
Most of the older newspapers are on microfilm with little indexing. Usually you will need to browse through issues of a newspaper to discover it's content.
A few Washington State historic newspapers have been digitized and are freely available on the web:
Magazines are similar to newspapers. Popular magazines (news, fashion, sports, etc.) provide a good feel for the period. However since most magazines are national in scope, there is limited coverage of local topics.
Many larger public and academic libraries will have magazine backfiles on microfilm or in print. Unlike newspapers, there is indexing to identify specific articles on topics. Many libraries will have either the Reader's Guide Retrospective database or its print equivalent, the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, which will allow you to find articles by topic.
Government documents (local, state and federal) are important primary sources for the study of history. Documents can include census and other statistical material, reports from governmental agencies such as the Women's Bureau within the US Department of Labor, congressional hearings and more.
Only the largest of public and academic libraries will have an extensive collection of government documents (e.g., University of Washington, the downtown branch of Seattle Public Library, etc.). Specialized databases and indexes are available in those libraries to identify pertinent government documents. Ask your librarian for recommendations. The National Archives has digitized more than 100,000 documents on a hodgepodge of topics (just a tiny fraction of its holdings). To find these search:
Diaries, Letters & Memoirs...
Diaries, letters, memoirs and oral histories are primary sources that provide an individual's account of a time. They are a unique voice on events.
Many have been published in book format, others are only available as manuscripts (See section below on manuscripts).
Many larger libraries will have some published diaries, letters and memoirs. To find these, search the library catalog using the following special terms that identify these type of works: sources, personal narratives, diaries, correspondence, interviews, and oral history.
The following websites include some digitized material on Washington State women:
- Densho - Japanese American oral histories
- Pacific Northwest Historical Documents Database - includes pioneer memoirs
- Black Oral History - Eastern Washington
- Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project - includes some interviews
- Oral History Project Transcripts - Museum of History & Industry
- In the First Person - index to oral histories on the web
- Oral History Catalog - index to King County oral histories
Manuscripts & Archives
Manuscript material is unique, unpublished material and can include handwritten diaries and letters plus organization material such as meeting minutes or handouts.
Usually it is best to do preliminary research in published material first (secondary and primary) before delving into manuscripts.
Manuscript material is housed in manuscript repositories at libraries and historical societies and institutional archives (material from just one organization such as the City of Seattle).More information:
Manuscript material is usually organized by name, person or organization, so it is best to do preliminary research first before using manuscript material. Because manuscript material is unique, you will usually have to follow stricter procedures including signing in to use the material and limited photocopying.
- National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections - searchable catalog of collections nationwide
- Seattle Municipal Archives
- Washington State Archives
Once you identify possible collections to use, you will then need to locate a finding aid, a more in-depth listing of what the collection holds. Some of these are available online but most are still only available at the manuscript or archive repository.
- Northwest Digital Archives - searchable listing of finding aids
Photographs, drawings, maps and other images provide information you can't always get from a text source. Images can provide details of everyday life such as clothing or architecture.
It is important to keep in mind that images are not an unbiased reflection of reality -- the creator of an image chooses what and how to depict a certain scene.More information:
There are many sources for historical photographs on the web that include images of women in Washington State:
- American Memory - Library of Congress collections
- UW Digital Collections
- King County Snapshots
- MOHAI Photos - scroll down to accept copyright restrictions, then you'll get to the search page
- Tacoma Public Library Photo Database