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American Women: Resources from the General Collections

Primary and Secondary Sources

Mary Ritter Beard, three-quarter length portrait, facing right. 1946. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When the modern women's movement emerged in the 1960s, many scholars began to explore the lives of women who had come before. As a result of this great upsurge of interest, the Library of Congress collections on women's history have grown enormously in the past three decades. Even before, however, many primary and secondary sources for research on this “newly discovered” topic were already housed at the Library.

Primary Sources

When searching for primary sources—fundamental, authoritative, contemporary documents used to prepare later works—historians often overlook the abundance of published primary source material. Women's diaries, correspondence, and autobiographies that have been printed either by the women themselves or someone else, either at the time of composition or centuries later, are primary sources and are found in abundance in the General Collections.

Secondary Sources

In addition to primary sources, researchers also look for secondary sources: books and articles describing and analyzing occurrences outside the writer's personal experience. The General Collections hold thousands of volumes of secondary sources. An item can be both a primary and a secondary source. When Mary Ritter Beard published her Woman as Force in History (1946), she had created a secondary source, a history of women. The volume becomes a primary source when later historians examine it as a pioneering contribution to the writing of women's history.

Instead of attempting to describe the innumerable women's history topics that can be researched with items from the General Collections, this site focuses on “types” of materials. Each type could supply evidence for multiple subjects in women's history. Some, like doctoral dissertations, are unusually plentiful at the Library of Congress; others, such as trade journals, have not been fully exploited by historians of women.

Only a few titles from among many possible are given for each type. These examples are meant to suggest how these types of works could be used for future study, to emphasize the need for readers to combine the wide range of uncommon printed sources with traditional and familiar ones, and to entice readers to the Library.