Unearthing Our Fellows’ Stories: The Fellowship Processing Project

June 20, 2014

 

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Archives and anniversaries go hand in hand, and for the 125th anniversary of the AAUW fellowships and grants program, staff members Lesley Perry, Laura Blyer, and I traveled to AAUW’s archives storage in suburban Virginia. Our goal was to search for materials and stories from boxes identified in our inventory as “American-International Fellows.”

At best, we hoped to come out with some interesting information and perhaps find a few cool photographs. We also wanted to locate the files of some of our more well-known fellows such as Joyce Brothers, Judith Resnik, and Hanna Holborn Gray.

The takeaway from our one-day visit was even greater than I had hoped: We were sitting on a treasure trove of first-person source material unmatched in any other part of AAUW’s archival collection. Upon this realization, I immediately made this collection a priority for the archives and for its materials to be processed first.

The fellowship collection contains 25 boxes of recipient files from 1917–73. To quantify things, each box holds around 75 folders; the entire collection has approximately 1,875 files. The contents of a typical file varied but usually included the fellow’s application, letters of support, photographs, biographical information, personal statements, examples of the applicant’s work, and follow-up surveys assessing her progress.

The materials had been stored in acidic folders and boxes and were kept together using staples and paper clips. In other words, a huge processing and preservation project awaited us.

We adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach. Staff members, archives interns, and Archives Corps volunteers processed these materials: removing staples and paper clips, putting materials in chronological order, and then placing them in new archival standard folders and containers and creating new identifiers for the folders and containers. After each box was completed and all of its files processed, the information was catalogued into our archives database system.

Before

Archives-unprocessed file

After

Archives-processed box 2

We have now improved the preservation of these materials and increased access to some wonderful stories from all over the world. Thanks to these records, we get a fresh perspective as fellows write to AAUW, describing and detailing their lives, and we have captured biographical information missing in other parts of our collection.

We discovered the courageous fellows who participated in humanitarian and resistance efforts during World War II. We recognized the hardships many of our fellows faced. We marveled at stories of fellows present during key events in history. We learned of fellows who mentored other fellows in their fields.

We also stumbled upon letters of support from Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Supreme Court justices, leaders in science and the humanities, prominent names in academia, literary critics, and famous writers. And we learned more about sponsorship and the generous and far-sighted women and men who funded these fellowships.

There are two constants in every file: a woman determined to succeed in her chosen field despite huge barriers and AAUW there to support her. We always knew this to be true, but now we have the historical evidence to prove it!

Note: Check the blog at the end of June for some of our favorite fellowship stories.

Stories Uncovered

Elsa van Dien and family

These Women Stargazers Helped Us Understand the Universe

The fellowship files of several prominent female astronomers were unearthed during processing.

Lily Unden

How Art Helped a Concentration Camp Survivor Heal

French poet Lily Unden was sentenced to Ravensbruck concentration camp during World War II. Her story is just one of many fascinating stories of courage uncovered.

Anne Firor Scott at work on her doctoral dissertation at the Haverford College library in 1956

A Fellowship Changes a Woman’s Life (and Women’s History)

Historian Anne Firor Scott used her fellowship funds to hire care for her young children so that she could finish her dissertation. Scott went on to revolutionize the field of women’s history.

By:   |   June 20, 2014