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Women Working, 1800–1930
Created and maintained by the Open Collections Program, Harvard University Library.
Reviewed April-Aug. 2006.

For a very long time, graduate students have been heard to lament: “If only we had Harvard’s library.” Even five years ago, that wish seemed futile. Today, however, it seems less far-fetched because Harvard University Library has launched its Open Collections Program, which makes some of its resources available to anyone with an Internet connection. Women Working, 1800–1930, an early product of that program, offers some 500,000 digitized pages and images drawn from 3,500 books and pamphlets, 7,500 pages of manuscripts, and 1,200 photographs housed in Harvard’s libraries and museums. From almost all perspectives, Women Working, 1800–1930 is a rich resource and a model for future World Wide Web–based collections.

Catharine Waugh McCulloch, handwritten manuscript,
ca. 1887, essay “Women as Law Clerks”

The project members responsible for the digital archive selected creatively, demonstrating an expansive approach to the many issues and venues associated with women working and a sharp eye for objects that would engage both a scholarly and general audience. The quality of the collection, as well as its sheer size, guarantees that the Web site will have ongoing value for researchers, teachers, and visitors interested in learning more about the history of working women in the United States. Moreover, the designers provided a variety of intuitive ways to enter the collection. Visitors can browse by genre, geographic location, individuals, dates, themes, and several other categories. Visitors seeking particular resources or topics can use the site’s full-text search capabilities across the collection and within large individual items. The opening page invites visitors to dip into diary entries for the current day or to browse through special topics.

Designers also wisely thought about how different people might want to use the collection. At each level of the collection, there are related links for those who want to know more about a source or topic. The “page delivery system” lets individuals print or store single pages, ranges of pages, or even whole books and manuscripts according to their particular needs. Most, although inexplicably not all, photographs can be displayed and saved at high or low resolutions.

A visit to the “Teacher Resources” section of Women Working, 1800–1930 reveals how well the site works. Collection materials are organized into five topics that reflect historical debates and contemporary issues such as child labor and consumerism. Short bibliographies offer students and teachers secondary materials for learning more about the topics. Relevant learning standards are included to encourage teachers to bring these rich resources into their mandated curricula. Significantly, the collection permits the use of all of its objects for any research or educational purpose, asking only that those images used on Web sites link to the Women Working, 1800–1930 site and that Harvard University Libraries be notified by e-mail of the site displaying the object.

Women Working, 1800–1930 demonstrates why graduate students were and still are right to wish they had ready access to Harvard’s collections. More importantly, it also demonstrates how the wise use of Internet and digital library technologies, combined with the generosity of repositories such as those at Harvard, are creating rich new environments for teaching, researching, and learning.

Janice L. Reiff
University of California
Los Angeles, California