Life in the Rosewood neighborhood would never be described as perilous; yet there I was, for a small moment, threatened with imminent danger. Earlier in the morning, the far side of our neighborhood suffered devastation from an overflowing Gills Creek. Then, suddenly, Facebook posts shouted, “Get out now!” as another dam failure threatened, issuing a new flood warning that included my street. The warning was soon rescinded, but, in those few minutes, my life and belongings streamed through my mind like the end of days. Sorry iPad, you did not top the list of valuables to save; neither did the TV or jewelry or artwork. So what did crown my mountain of possessions? Well, it turns out that two dogs, mom and dad, and my “Interesting Women” folders led the list.
Mom and dad and the dogs seem obvious list-toppers, but when push came to shove, I knew the “Interesting Women” files were irreplaceable. It has taken no fewer than ten years to fill the two manila folders with newspaper articles about unknown, mostly Progressive-era women who were accomplished and, well, interesting. The articles themselves are replaceable, because digitization makes historic newspapers easily available these days. However, these articles were found by chance while browsing through historic newspapers. My memory has retained only a few of the names, so the specific articles couldn’t be found again without a name to plug into modern online keyword searching. Without the folder contents, these womanly accomplishments could be lost, not only in the rising waters, but in a sea of black and white.
From genealogists to scholars, researchers know newspaper articles are valuable primary resources. However, until recently, they were not easily accessible. In the olden days (sigh!), researchers loaded a filmstrip reel with small images of newspaper pages into a Dalek-looking machine and browsed every page of every day to find a newspaper article about whatever they were researching. As a librarian, I spent many hours with eyes glued to the microfilm machine portal looking for historic articles. While scanning these reels, my strained eyes were, almost mystically, drawn towards amazing articles about South Carolina women who were doctors, lawyers, authors, scientists, missionaries, and celebrities. Their newsy accomplishments were covered by reporters, but, over time, their stories were forgotten. The urge to collect these articles became an obsession. I printed every article and stashed them into a mangy manila folder retrieved from the trash. The folder grew exponentially and became two mangy folders simply labeled, “Interesting Women.”
Today, of course, if a researcher is looking for an article, they type a name into an internet search window and the computer delivers a digitized article. But what happens when names like Matilda Evans (1857-1946), African American social activist, Henrietta Aiken Kelly (1844-1916), South Carolina scientist and educator, or Duchess Janie Perry de Litta (1855-1920), socialite and paparazzi darling, are unknown? These women are not found in history books or biographies (yet!). Discovering them was pure serendipity. “X” marked the spot over and over again on the grainy microfilm pages as I found a treasure trove of historical information about forgotten paths forged by our historical sisters.
Certainly once a name is known, the person can be “keyworded” into life using genealogical resources, finding aids, and historic newspapers. But unlike the carefreeness of browsing, a keyword search bears a shadow of paranoia. Researching in large newspaper databases is akin to “finding a needle in a haystack” without an advanced search. For example, researching for articles about Kelly requires searching for several name variations—Henrietta A. Kelly, Henrietta Aiken Kelly, Etta Kelly, Henrietta Kelly, Miss Kelly, Etta A. Kelly—and then repeating every search with “Kelley.” Advanced search techniques help refine the query, but the search phrase soon begins to look like another language, and—guess what—it is! Boolean is a computer language used to control the search results using computer readable algebraic formulas. An effective Boolean search for Kelly might look like this: <henrietta adj2 kell*y>. In this search, the computer is instructed to search for Henrietta within two words of Kelley or Kelly. This helps the researcher adjust for the middle name or middle initial (or lack thereof) and the possibility of Kelly being spelled multiple ways. To confuse matters further, this computer language comes in different “dialects.” In another database, the same Kelly search could look like this: <”henrietta kell?y”~2>. Digitization makes primary documents more accessible, but it doesn’t make searching them easier.
Not that browsing doesn’t have its required skills, but an advanced online search is rigid, technical, and complicated. Browsing, dare I say, is an art form. It takes a knack, or an intuition, to quickly spot meaningful articles. Indeed, the movement of the microfilm pages, so the researcher can quickly absorb the scratchy headlines, must be precisely timed. The researcher’s eye must also easily adjust to headlines that vary from the smallest font to larger front page headlines (sadly most articles about women have smaller fonts). The scrolling microfilm images also induce motion sickness, and the grey matter of the most experienced microfilm user will get squishy after a couple hours of browsing. There is no denying, however, the euphoric moment when an article is spotted in the numbing black and white. But, hold on, this is not the time to crow—the film must be promptly stopped and the article printed or cited, for there is an unwritten browsing rule: “there’s no going back.” It can’t be explained, but if the researcher goes back later to find the article, it will not be found. Anything not immediately noted for the record will disappear, never to be recovered. A little creepy, but true.
Despite the pleasure and benefit of browsing newspapers, online searching has easily eclipsed browsing as a research tool. Online searching is so darn convenient that it’s now the first and last resort for the most experienced researcher. Personally, I haven’t printed out an “Interesting Women” article in a very long time.
So what to do with all the women I have found? Well, it turns out that with loads of research, not only online but also at historical institutions, the first women in the “Interesting Women” folder became more than merely “interesting.” Their lives were truly magnificent, with astounding vitality and strength. Their stories are tentacles that stretch to include the lives of more remarkable women whose names are not found in local newspapers. These women rose above bigotry, sexism, and racism with bold hearts to accomplish their goals in a society that limited their movement, possessions, and opportunities. I share these women’s stories with any interested reader, editor, or listener.
As I edge toward sixty, uncovering the lives of these forgotten women has changed my life in a spectacular fashion. But, what if the stories of historic women, who created unique and individual roles for themselves, were available to me when I was ten? What if I spent my youthful hours in the library finding books about real women and not settling for my fictional female favorites? And what about the women still lost in the pages of historic newspapers? They are, as yet, unknown and unaccounted for. My browsing days are over, but there is plenty left to uncover.
(For more about: Matilda Griffin see the Columbia Star, September 16, 2011 (available through Newsbank); Duchess Janie Perry de Litta see Carologue, Spring 2015 (sorry, print only); and Henrietta Aiken Kelly see 2014 Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association.)