Women’s Clubs a Great History Resource

May 28, 2008

I realized today that maybe one of the best ways to research women’s history (at least, for around 1880-1920 or so in the United States) is through records, minute books, newsletters and similar materials produced by various women’s clubs, such as book clubs, gardening clubs, and other types of “local” associations – not to mention more national-level and well known groups like women’s church groups, Red Cross, and other groups.

I say this only because I know it is often hard for the beginning researcher to do identify source materials for women’s history. A lot of times, the types of sources like I mention above are not explicitly identified as “women’s history” resources. They might only be listed by their name, or a general identification like “Clubs” or something similar.

Another reason, and maybe the major reason, that I think these are worthwhile resources to pursue is because of the concept of “separate spheres” – women were expected to stay out of the political arena, be concerned with child-rearing, and so forth – but viewed from a feminist and/or modern perspective, sometimes these organizations appear to be quite benign on the surface – but turn out to be very politically active and savvy – wielding women’s power in the forums in which it was “granted,” and then some! Like (fictional example) a women’s charity organized to aid orphans. Well, that could lead to broader child welfare issues, getting the children out of the sweatshops, advocating better city sanitation, or all sorts of other things. I think it goes along the same lines as the adage: “The personal is political.”

I hadn’t thought of using this blog as a way to offer and share (and perhaps receive!) research tips, but maybe that is a good idea. I certainly do enough research and sometimes come across weird and interesting things while looking for something else (one of the pleasures of research – yes, it can be FUN!!) – so maybe I’ll start doing that occasionally. Though I still expect to spend most of my time on other things and topics, something like this might be a nice diversion now and then.

©2008 writingreading

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Bibliographies – In Danger of Extinction?

May 25, 2008

I was shocked, dismayed, and disappointed when I recently read a couple of non-fiction historical works – complete with footnotes and written by very well respected scholars – which did not have bibliographies.

I don’t understand why a publisher would omit about 20 pages of truly useful material. Maybe to people who don’t do research, who are just interested in sales of product and economizing, those extra 20-30 pages of academic details are just fluff, icing on the cake, and we’re all trying to be on a low-fat diet. But bibliographies, along with footnotes – are the bread and butter of academic research!

Sure, the footnotes are still there, and are in their own way invaluable – but bibliographies serve a different function. Footnotes help you find the specifics – like the individual newspaper article where X is reported, or the court case that set up Y, or the letter home from soldier Z who told his wife about what he saw at Shiloh.

But bibliographies paint the broader picture. What resources – especially books, some of which might be somewhat obscure – did the author use to inform the broader context and background of their topic? Perhaps there is not a single quotation or reference to a particular book (which would be documented in a footnote), but nevertheless that book’s theoretical background or overall perspective on a subject was invaluable in the way the author approched her subject.

I’ve also found bibliographies particularly important in my own research. If I know I’m going to be making a trip to Indiana, for example, and scholar A cites several collections of materials at the Indiana Historical Society on a certain subject, I can target those materials for my research when I go there. Having a bibliography puts all references to collections at a particular institution together in one place. I don’t have to search through pages and pages of footnotes to compile my own list of “what sources did they use from Indiana?” This, for me, is the most critical and vital purpose of bibliographies. I cannot state this forcefully enough: Bibliographies are an essential tool for furthering scholarly research and inquiries!

What I believe publishers may not realize is that the bibliography may not be nearly as important to the author of a work, as it is to the work’s readers. Maybe I’ve just finished a great book, and I want to read more on the subject. A bibliography enables me to do that.

That being said, a bibliography is still extremely important to the author as well. As a hypothetical author, I would fight tooth and nail to get a bibliography included in my book. I’ve done far too much work and research to have half of my toil omitted by completely ignoring sources that I have consulted, though I may not have quoted them.

It seems also that a bibliography is a good, open method for me as a scholarly writer to inform others about sources that I may have unconsciously drawn upon. Perhaps I pick up and use a phrase or perspective in my work that I “absorbed through osmosis” in my various background reading. A bibliography would cite that source. Without the bibliography, I might be in danger of having the appearance that that catchy concept was my own – instead of someone else’s, though hopefully I would be conscientious enough to avoid this pitfall.

I don’t know how prevalent this practice of omitting bibliographies has become. My recent experience is based upon two books put out by Alfred A. Knopf, by two very highly respected scholars: My Face Is Black Is True by Mary Frances Berry (more on this one, later) and This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. I don’t know if other publishers are following this trend, or if Knopf is the only one to throw out the bibliography with the bath water.

But I find it a sad day for academic and scholarly publishing – even when done by more popular presses, as opposed to university presses – when the bibliography seems headed the way of the dodo bird, towards extinction.

©2008 writingreading