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American Women: Resources from the General Collections

The General Collections of the Library of Congress constitute most of the books and bound periodicals published since 1800. Part of the American Women series, this research guide highlights primary and secondary sources about American women's history.


Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. [Main Reading Room. View of statue of History by Daniel Chester French on the column entablature between two alcoves. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.]. 2009. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Researchers sitting in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress are surrounded by images of women. From the top of the ornate dome, the female form of Human Understanding lifts the veil of ignorance to encourage scholars below in their pursuit of truth.

Around the reading room, set high on great pillars, stand statues of eight larger-than-life women who symbolize aspects of civilized life and thought. The statue of History (pictured on right) holds a book in one hand and a mirror in the other to reflect the past accurately. While the builders of the Library were following a European tradition of classical symbolism, American suffragists were declaring, “Woman cannot be ignored, or civilization will suffer!”(1909).1 The collections of the Library of Congress, like its decoration, show us our past and tell us women's stories.

Among the Library's earliest acquisitions were Mercy Otis Warren's history of the American Revolution and Phillis Wheatley's poems. As the Library began, so it has continued. Throughout its two-hundred-year history, the Library of Congress has acquired, cataloged, and preserved valuable sources for uncovering the past of women of the United States.

Under the pedestrian name “General Collections,” the Library gathers most of the books and bound periodicals published since 1800 that are useful to searchers of American women's history. Researchers wishing to view materials in the General Collections request them in the

  • Area Studies (African & Middle Eastern, Asian, European, and Hispanic Reading Rooms)
  • Local History and Genealogy Reference Services
  • Main Reading Room
  • Microform Reader Services
  • Science and Business Reading Room

Specialized reading rooms hold books and periodicals printed before 1801, music and law materials of all dates; items written in Near Eastern and Asian languages must be requested in appropriate Area Studies reading rooms.  Examples of types of materials held in the General Collections include:

  • nineteenth-century ladies' almanacs with hand-painted illustrations
  • Sears, Roebuck catalogs
  • slave narratives
  • congressional reports on women's suffrage
  • published collections of women's letters and diaries
  • lectures presented by women astronomers


  1. Sofia M. Loebinger, “Suffragism, Not Feminism,” American Suffragette (Official Organ of the National Progressive Woman Suffrage Union; JK1880.A6), December 1909, 3. Back to text


I would like to thank my colleagues in the Researcher and Reference Services (formerly the Humanities and Social Sciences Division) who cheered me on through the long months I concentrated on this guide and who also worked extra hours on the reference desk so I had time for research and writing. The following people read sections of ths guide, suggested sources, and provided valuable comments: Cheryl Adams, Paul Q. Baker, Betty M. Culpepper, David J. Kelly, David Kresh, Thomas Mann, Ardie S. Myers, Marilyn K. Parr, James P. Sweany, Barbara B. Walsh, Kathy Woodrell, and Abby Yochelson. For the sections on Library of Congress subject headings and classification, I am grateful to Thomas Mann (again), Thompson A. Yee, and Lynn M. El-Hoshy for excellent suggestions based on expert knowledge. Susan Ware gave some good advice at a crucial moment. Janice E. Ruth (Manuscript Division) and Barbara Orbach Natanson (Prints and Photographs Division) commented on numerous drafts of this chapter to its great benefit, for which I am grateful.

-- Sheridan Harvey (retired)