Announcing the US Children’s Bureau Papers Project
Last week, I had the good fortune to present an invited talk at the Radcliffe Workshop on Technology and Archival Processing, a small gathering of archives professionals from Harvard and other New England institutions. The Workshop is put together by the staff of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, where I’ve been a frequent visitor, camera in hand, shooting research-quality images of their collections. I was invited to participate in a session on “Processing for End Users,” but rather than rehashing my posts on digital tools and archives research, I decided to present about my new project.
As some readers know, my dissertation research has relied substantially on the records of the United States Children’s Bureau, which was the first US federal agency established to focus on the wellbeing of mothers and children. The bureau’s period of greatest influence was between 1912 and 1939, when it pioneered programs which were the forerunners of the modern US social-welfare state. It’s been the subject of important books by, among others, Robyn Muncy, Molly Ladd-Taylor, and Kriste Lindenmeyer.
Historians who work on the history of US women are in the Children’s Bureau files constantly, because they’re a great source, especially for correspondence from ordinary mothers about the realities of pregnancy and childbearing. But when you poke through the files, you see all kinds of topics covered: public health, both US and international; family law and legal reform; child labor; adoption; early 20th century information technologies. This is a fabulous collection, but it’s underutilized because it’s huge and there’s no comprehensive documentation of what’s there.
The Children’s Bureau’s official records have only been partially microfilmed, and they’re very minimally processed. According to NARA’s preliminary inventory, published in 1976, the Central File records from 1914-1940 alone contain 450 linear feet of textual material. They’re unrestricted (open to the public), kept in Record Group 103 at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.
When I’ve visited College Park to work in this collection, I’ve brought back gigabytes of images which I don’t want any future researcher to have to duplicate in her own research. So why not start a collaborative project where we can work together to build a virtual collection of these materials? It won’t be complete or perfect, but it’ll be a way to expose these amazing sources for use in teaching and research about US women’s history. And some of the technology already exists for transcribing the manuscript letters in the collection: Scripto, the NEH-funded crowdsourced-transcription tool built at the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.
Launching today is the website for the United States Children’s Bureau Papers Project, which aims to create a crowdsourced version of NARA Record Group 103, 1912-1947. At the first blog post there, I’ve posted a short PDF description of the project and the slides from my Radcliffe talk.
Suffice to say that this isn’t a project I can do alone, especially in my first year of a faculty job. Accordingly, I’m looking for collaborators from the worlds of open-source software, archives, and/or historical scholarship. If you’re interested in participating, please drop me email or comment below. I’ll post more in the future about what might be useful, but in the meantime, I just wanted to get this news out there.