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American Women: Resources from the Recorded Sound Collections

Part of the American Women series, this guide highlights the Library’s audio collections related to U.S. women's history and demonstrates the richness and variety of these resources in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.


Jack Delano, photographer. Blue Island, Illinois. Listening to a radio program in the Senise home. 1943. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Sound affords us the privilege of experiencing firsthand “Crazy Blues” as sung by Mamie Smith (1883-1946) in 1920—the first vaudeville blues recording by an African American—or a Verdi aria charmingly sung by ten-year-old Beverly Sills on a 1939 Major Bowes' Amateur Hour broadcast. A powerfully moving 1939 radio talk on the meaning of American democracy by Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) and a 1930s interview with social worker Jane Addams (1860-1935) about public relief are also available to us as recorded sound. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) holds one of the world's largest and comprehensive collections of sound recordings documenting twentieth-century American women's contributions in a great variety of disciplines and areas of achievement. The collections provide an aural gateway through which we can study both the most noteworthy and some less well-known American women of the century. These recordings offer an opportunity to study twentieth- and twenty-first-century American women not only through the words and songs of others but, most importantly, through the words and songs of the women themselves.

Audio Holdings and Methods of Collecting

The Library has collected more than two million audio and radio broadcast recordings dating from 1890 to the present day and spanning the history of recorded sound technology and broadcasting. Nearly every audio format ever used to record sound is represented, from wax cylinders and 78-rpm discs to audiotapes and digital compact discs. Diverse media such as wire recordings, aluminum discs, piano rolls, rubber compound discs, and translucent plastic discs also are found in the collections. The collections are predominantly American in scope and include both commercial releases and noncommercial archival recordings; the latter are unique, unpublished recordings that are usually the result of personal or corporate activity.

The Library did not begin to collect recordings systematically until 1925. At that time, the Victor Talking Machine Company gave the Library a selection of its phonograph records, prompting other companies to follow suit. The Library initially developed its collections almost solely through gifts from individuals and corporations. To this day, private collectors, performing artists, corporations, and associations contribute their recordings, radio programs, and archives to the Library. In 1972, the deposit of sound recordings became a United States copyright law requirement, providing the Library with another invaluable source for acquiring recordings. Copyright deposits include cassettes and recordable compact discs which offer insight into the thoughts and feelings of the American people and present an American musical panorama that cannot be found anywhere else. In addition, the division often receives recordings from the Music or Manuscript divisions that come into the Library as part of large, multi-format collections, such as the Margaret Mead Collection. The recorded sound holdings are rich in published recordings of ethnographic interest, as well as Library of Congress music and literary programs; material from other government agencies; voice transcriptions; and popular, folk, jazz, musical theater, and classical music from private sources.

American Women in Radio, Music, and Spoken Word Recordings

Bain News Service. Margaret Wilson. 1919. George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Sometimes content is not of primary importance in a recording. The fact that a recording provides one of the few, perhaps only, opportunities to hear a public person's voice may be of equal interest as is the fascination of hearing variations in oratorical styles, vocal expressions, and language dialects. In an unpublished 1952 recording, Helen Keller (1880-1968) spoke to Library of Congress employees about the talking books for the blind program. Her speech was translated, however, as the words are almost entirely indiscernible. Corinne Roosevelt Robinson (1861-1933) spoke in crisp, patrician tones heard on a 1920 recording in which she supported the Harding-Coolidge presidential ticket. Robinson and her brother, Theodore, displayed a meticulous and refined way of speaking that may sound affected and strident to Americans today. Margaret Woodrow Wilson (1886-1944), President Woodrow Wilson's daughter who aspired to a career as a singer, recorded a medley of patriotic airs in 1915 with Columbia for the American Red Cross (Columbia A1685). A copy of an 1892 brown wax cylinder reveals a heartfelt message to “every white-ribboned sister” by Isabella (Lady Henry) Somerset (1851-1921), vice president of the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

Women's Suffrage

The Women's Suffrage movement made active use of the burgeoning recording technologies that were increasingly available and popular throughout the early 20th century. Radio reached wide audiences and was instrumental in getting the word out on both sides of the debate. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress has a number of fascinating resources related to women's suffrage, from radio documentaries on the history of the movement and its leaders to recordings of interviews with suffragists, as well as popular songs associated with the movement. In addition to recorded sound materials, the division holds a number of moving image resources that add another dimension to documentation of the movement, including actuality footage of parades and speeches, early films satirizing the movement, and film and television documentaries. A Research Guide detailing these resources is in preparation and will be linked when complete.

Finding Audio Recordings at the Library of Congress

Audio recordings at the Library of Congress are described in two Library of Congress catalogs:

Please note: catalog records found in SONIC does not have a permanent linking feature. In these cases, a search in SONIC of the call number, title, or persons involved will turn up the catalog record for the recording.