December 2015 Archways

Sisters Launch Digital Archive

Seven SistersThe women’s colleges once known as the Seven Sisters have launched a digital archive that brings together—for the first time online—digitized letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and photographs of women who attended the seven partner institutions. Called College Women: Documenting the History of Women in Higher Education, the project is a joint effort of Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe (now the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University), Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley.

These seven colleges, historically seen as the equivalent of the Ivy League before those schools admitted women, have long stood at the forefront of women’s higher education in the United States, and educated many of the most ambitious, socially conscious, and intellectually curious women in the country.

Previously preserved and only available in the libraries of each school, these historical documents serve as a rich resource for understanding a wide range of issues in women’s history and beyond.

“This is the first time these treasures are available online and searchable together,” says Eric Pumroy, director of the program and associate chief information officer and director of special collections at Bryn Mawr. “Researchers will more easily be able to consider student materials in a larger context of movements for women’s education and expanded opportunities for women in American society.”

Featuring 300 photographs, letters, diaries, and scrapbooks, College Women is currently in a beta version. The institutions will be expanding the content in the coming years as more historical documents are digitized and catalogued.

“This innovative project demonstrates the potential for creating new research opportunities for students and scholars when institutions collaborate on building digital collections,” says Pumroy.

The project grew out of discussions that began in 2012, led by the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College. In 2014, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded a planning grant to Bryn Mawr on behalf of the group to develop a portal and set standards for cataloging and indexing their collections. Over the past year, the libraries of all seven institutions have worked to design and test the site and develop standards for its operation. Students in Greenfield Center Director Monica Mercado’s spring History Department seminar, “Higher Education for Women: Bryn Mawr and Beyond,” also helped test the site during its development process.

Design and construction of the site was done by Interactive Mechanics of Philadelphia. The project received advice from a team of leading scholars in the fields of women’s history, history of education, women’s archives, and the digital humanities: Ellen Gruber Garvey (New Jersey City University), Helen Horowitz (Smith College), Mary Kelley (University of Michigan), Laura Mandell (Texas A&M University), Katherine Rowe (Smith College), and Susan N. Tucker (Tulane University).

The College Women beta site has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence.

The site debuted at Women’s History in the Digital World 2015, the second conference of the Greenfield Digital Center, which brought more than 130 digital scholars to campus this May.