Information about North American Women's Letters and Diaries
  Release 6
1. Introduction - a personal account of how the database was created.
2. About the database - a description of the contents of the database and its purpose.
3. Editorial Criteria - detailed criteria used in selecting materials.
4. Errata - known typographical and software errors to be fixed next release.
5. Notes on the Current Release - notes on this version.
6. Software requirements - notes on which browsers are supported.
7. Technical support - whom to contact for technical support.
8. Subscription and Free Trial Information - how to get a subscription or a trial.
9. License Agreement - licensing terms and conditions.
10. Acknowledgements - charter customers and individuals who contributed.
11. How to Contribute Materials or Comments - how to contribute materials.
12. Copyright Statement - copyright terms and conditions.
13. Archiving - how this material is preserved for the future.
14. Cataloging Records - what kind of MARC records will be available for this collection.

1.   Personal Introduction

How North American Women's Letters and Diaries came to be

first conceived the idea for North American Women's Letters and Diaries early in 2000, while researching the microfilm collections at the Library of Congress. As I pored through these grainy and difficult-to-read manuscripts of early diaries, it occurred to me that this kind of material - more than most - would benefit from being in electronic form.

One of the problems with the microfilm was that the colored inks of the original documents had faded and leached through the paper. The originals would have been hard enough to read, and when photographed in black and white many were almost unintelligible. Even with these difficulties, I found items of great interest. One passage - in a clean, cursive script that had obviously been dictated - showed me what a schoolgirl had learned in 1793. Presumably her teacher had wandered up and down the classroom dictating the geography lesson. It struck me that this snapshot was the closest one could get today to experiencing a class of that time.

When I moved on to the published diaries, I found more easily legible and consistently interesting material. A search of bibliographies led me to Joyce Goodfriend's wonderful, annotated bibliography, which in turn pointed me to many items of interest. Mary Almy's account of sighting a fleet off Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1778 is one notable example. Her diary gives an hour-by-hour account of the reactions of the town as a fleet anchors off shore. At first the townspeople think that it's the British fleet and are happy. They then discover it's the French and become concerned. Finally, Almy describes how the shopkeepers lock their doors, concerned about a foraging expedition by the crews of the eleven warships. For me, reading these passages was like watching the CNN crews reporting that the Marines were coming ashore during the Gulf War. The immediacy and emotion were there as if the events were happening today.

Such is the value of diaries and letters. Unlike memoirs, they present the raw moment without the distortions of hindsight. With letters and diaries, there is no time lag between the event and the writing, time in which to correct attitudes or facts that may have become unpopular or erroneous.

The more research I did, the more aware I became of the deficiencies of print in handling this kind of material. Firstly, there is the problem of organization. The editor of a print collection of diaries and letters has to choose a single way to arrange the collection - typically by theme or by author. But for readers who are interested in topics that cut across authors and themes, that leaves no way of accessing the relevant material. Then there is the problem of size. Sometimes an editor has to discard materials because of the need to conserve printing costs, or because he thinks that the average reader will find a passage too dull.

If done right, the electronic medium has no such barriers. The size of a database can be almost unlimited, and the materials can be organized with multiple threads, so that the reader can quickly go to just the materials that interest her. Someone focusing on a particular month of history does not need to pore over numerous volumes, each written by a different author. Instead she can see the month organized as it actually happened - materials from many sources, arranged chronologically. She can view multiple perspectives on the same event with ease. I saw that scholars frequently and painstakingly would combine sources this way in paper form, and I knew that in electronic form they could do it more thoroughly and in seconds.

As I thought about all of this, I realized that it would be possible to create a historical document of unprecedented utility. In fact, with a carefully constructed thesaurus of controlled terms, we could take the experiences described in these primary materials and create a series of virtual documents, each representing the collective consciousness of many individuals. Instead of reading the view of a single individual about the death of her child, for example, we could examine the views of hundreds of individuals over time.

Thinking about the next steps, I realized that print is a surprisingly tolerant medium, microfilm even more so. Errors in cataloging or in terminology are at worst an annoyance in these media. A reader who scrolls through a book will sooner or later find what he's looking for. In contrast, the electronic medium is one of the least tolerant media invented - a single typo can make it impossible to find something. Poorly chosen subject headings can lead a user to miss critical documents. The absence of a linear path through the data can make navigation impossible.

Turning the idea into a design

In July 2000, I was joined by Eileen Lawrence and Pat Lawry.

Pat Lawry came to Alexander Street Press with many years of professional indexing experience. She quickly understood the concept and began developing fields and controlled vocabularies. I think both of us were surprised when we realized just how powerful these fields would be. One benchmark was to make it possible to get all letters, sent by women under the age of 20, who mentioned the world 'gold' in 1849. Such indexing would enable wholly new discoveries to be made.

Eileen Lawrence immediately began presenting the idea to librarians and academics at leading universities. Over the next six months, she made more than fifty site visits and countless phone calls. In airports, on planes and in hotel rooms, she would write up what she'd learned, sending a steady stream of email full of comments and suggestions. Back at the office we would meet to reshape the contents and specifications of the database, based on all the valuable customer feedback we were receiving. For example, University of Chicago encouraged us to retain page numbers so that scholars could cite materials easily; Emory suggested we drop our socio-economic status field because it was too subjective; and UC Irvine suggested we include a field for recipient gender to facilitate analysis of how gender affects the language of letters - just to list a few of the many ideas libraries offered. We kept visiting, phoning, listening, shaping and reshaping the product. By September 2000, we'd settled on some 50 additional fields that collectively would transform the material and make it of use to a wide range of scholars and students. Little did we know how many more fields were yet to come.

Along the way, we found more bibliographies and additional sources. Our combined bibliography was now twice the size of Goodfriend's and included many rare materials, including extracts from journals, some manuscript materials, and books.

With continuing research and feedback, by December we had more than 80 different fields in the database design. The product was sufficiently well developed that many leading institutions had already purchased it.

Editorial Policies

Our editorial policy was now established. For our initial selection of materials we used Goodfriend, supported by a number of other bibliographies. Ms. Goodfriend was kind enough to license us her annotations, so providing an additional level of context. The University of Wisconsin suggested that we use the Handbook of Women Writers to ensure that we weren't missing any important individuals. So we used this and other sources to identify omissions, then we searched for those sources.

Our primary goal was to identify items of special interest for Women's Studies, Social Studies, and History. We searched for materials that illustrated the role and status of women, personal attitudes and reactions to specific historical or personal events or individuals, and descriptions that conveyed the life and times of the past.

Because we wanted a database of women's thoughts at the time they thought them, we decided to exclude memoirs, focusing instead on contemporaneous accounts only, and omitting correspondence from men.

Building the interface and the engine

A canned prototype of the interface had been in place since August 2000. From the outset, our goal was to enable users quickly to find what they were looking for, with the fewest possible clicks. At the same time, we aimed not to sacrifice any of the power made possible by the indexing. Blending these two goals - power and simplicity - was the challenge.

As I looked at search engines, I noticed that many of them had sacrificed searching power in an effort for simplicity. This trend had become extreme. Search engines like Lycos and AltaVista were devoting less than 3% of their opening screens' space to searching. Even library-oriented services had reduced the number of questions that their databases could answer. We decided that one of our design principles would be to enable patrons to take advantage of all the search power. We would provide a simple search screen for novices, but also unprecedented search power for advanced users.

Another design issue related to passive versus active searching. A book's table of contents allows for passive searching - it doesn't require the user to do or know anything, but rather lets the users simply browse and see everything in the book. And because a table of contents is sequenced in a particular order, it lets the user know what's missing as well as what's present. Recognizing the ease that table-of-contents browsing provides, we decided to create the same for the database. The only difference was this: thanks to our indexing and our controlled vocabularies, we could have numerous tables instead of the customary one, giving the user multiple entry choices. So today, North American Women's Letters and Diaries can be viewed in its entirety by author, by source, by year, by personal event, and by historical event. Within two clicks and without keying anything, a user can see whether the database contains what he's looking for.

Besides checking the table of contents of a book, a person will also search for a specific terms in the index at the back - active searching. But unlike a book, where the user looks up one index item at a time, a well-constructed electronic database allows searching by multiple and combined fields. With our 80 index fields, we knew that the power of the searching would be tremendous if we could find the right search engine.

In the fall of 2000, after an in-depth search, we decided on the PhiloLogic search engine at the University of Chicago. I had worked with Catherine Mardikes, Mark Olsen and Robert Morrissey before, and I knew that PhiloLogic had the ability to integrate full-text searching with fielded searching. Moreover, it had the potential to analyze texts using word frequencies. This feature allows users to see when and where words appear and how frequently. Now North American Women's Letters and Diaries would be of use beyond Women's Studies and History - it would also be a powerful English and Linguistics tool.

By now the project was in full swing. Laura Gosling, Assistant Editor, had built an excellent thesaurus, indexing records were being generated, and we were working hard to build the live prototype.

A live prototype is released

A live database with 1,000 pages of material was finished and loaded a few days before the January 2001 American Library Association Midwinter Conference. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we were nervous. I had seen only one library database before that had nearly as many fields as we'd put into our file. In theory the search power would allow us to ask questions that no one had ever been able to ask before. Now was the time to see if it actually worked!

At the conference, we presented to more than 100 individuals in meetings, as well as countless booth visitors. The response was wonderful. With only 1% of the data loaded, North American Women's Letters and Diaries was already fun to use and producing fascinating search results. One of the first searches yielded a letter from a woman in May 1849 to her husband, who had followed his dreams to California. "Do not imagine that I want to come, for I do not, and think that you will be a real goose to stay, for all the gold in the mines; but if you do stay, I am coming, or else I will get a divorce. You know that they are trying to make a law here, that if a man and his wife are separated two years, they can get a divorce; so if you wish to get rid of me, you know what to do."

During the next months we will be adding new material at an average rate of 5,000 pages per month, including new, previously unpublished manuscript material, as well as licensed in-copyright materials. Working closely with you, our customers, our partners, and other users of the database, we'll continue to listen to your comments and make improvements. We welcome your input.

I'd like to finish by expressing my gratitude to all of you who have helped make this happen. In particular I'd like to thank our charter customers, who had faith in our vision, and whose suggestions helped make a good idea into a great one. I'd also like to acknowledge Catherine Mardikes and Mark Olsen who worked so hard on the project. I hope you'll get as much fun and learning out of the database as I expect to.

Stephen Rhind-Tutt, President
Alexander Street Press
May 2001

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2.   About North American Women's Letters and Diaries

"My pen is always freer than my tongue. I have written many things to you that I suppose I never could have talked." -- Abigail Adams, 1775

<North American Women's Letters and Diaries is the largest collection of women's diaries and correspondence ever assembled. Spanning more than 300 years, brings the personal experiences of some 1,325 women to researchers, students, and general readers.

The uses for the collection will be many and varied. For historians, sociologists, students of literature, researchers in genealogy, and others, North American Women's Letters and Diaries will prove a dramatic new resource. These diaries bring us much more than the personal. They provide a detailed record of what women wore, the conditions under which they worked, what they ate, what they read, and how they amused themselves. We can see how frequently they attended church, how they viewed their connection to God, and how they prayed. We can explore their relationships with lovers and family and friends. William Matthews, an early scholar in this field, observed:

"I believe the diary to be a unique kind of writing; all other forms of writing envisage readers, and so are adapted to readers, by interpretation, order, simplification, rationalization, omission, addition, and the endless devices of exposition . . . [diaries] are in general the most immediate, truthful, and revealing documents available. . ."
The collection includes some 150,000 pages of published letters and diaries from individuals writing from Colonial times to 1950, including more than 6,000 pages of previously unpublished materials. Drawn from more than 600 sources, including journal articles, pamphlets, newsletters, monographs, and conference proceedings, much of the material is in copyright. Represented are all age groups and life stages, all ethnicities, many geographical regions, the famous and the not so famous. It includes some 300 biographies to enhance the use of the database.

North American Women's Letters and Diaries aims to cover all published material and as large a number of unpublished materials as copyright and cost will allow. The contents have been selected from the bibliographies listed below as well as other sources.

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3.   Editorial criteria The material for North American Women's Letters and Diaries has been selected according to a number of strict criteria. Initially, we consulted a number of leading bibliographies. These provided a basis from which we could begin to license and acquire materials.
  • The Published Diaries and Letters of American Women: an annotated bibliography, Joyce D. Goodfriend, G.K. Hall, 1987
  • American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals. Laura Arksey, Nancy Pries and Marcia Reed, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1983
  • Women's Diaries, Journals, and Letters: an annotated bibliography, Cheryl Cline, Garland, 1989
  • American Diaries in Manuscript, 1580-1954: a descriptive bibliography. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1974 
  • Canadian Diaries and Autobiographies, by William Matthews. Berkeley, CA., University of California Press, 1950
  • And So to Bed: a bibliography of diaries published in English. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987
  • New England Diaries, 1602-1800. A descriptive catalogue of diaries, orderly books and sea journals. Topsfield, Mass: Privately Printed, 1923
Further criteria include:
  • Authors must be women and must have been resident in North America for a significant time.
  • Materials must have been written contemporaneously. Autobiographical material are excluded, unless they are considered of particular value.
  • Memoirs are included when they are of particular value.
  • Collections of letters begun before 1950 are included until they are complete. Collections of letters written after 1950 are excluded.
  • Diaries that began before 1950 are included until they are complete. Diaries that began after 1950 are excluded.
  • Letters written by men are excluded.

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4.   Errata

Our goal is to have no errors in this database.   To this end we are interested in hearing about any errors you may find.  Please use e-mail us at the address below.

Known errata in this database:

  • There are no known errata in the database at this time.

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5.   Notes on this release.

This release includes 1,325 authors and approximately 150,000 pages of material.   Future releases will include corrections, links to additional materials and additional biographical material.

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6.   Software requirements

North American Women's Letters and Diaries works with Netscape Navigator Version 4 or higher or Microsoft Explorer 7.0 or higher.   Most functionality is available with older browsers.

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7.   Technical support

You can contact us by:

When reporting a problem please include your customer name, e-mail address, phone number, domain name or IP address and that of your web proxy server if used.

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8.   Subscription and free trial information

North American Women's Letters and Diaries is available for one-time purchase of perpetual access, or as an annual subscription. Please contact us at if you wish to begin a subscription or to request a free 30-day trial.

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9.   License Agreement

Terms of Use

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10.   Acknowledgements

North American Women's Letters and Diaries was made possible through the hard work of the following individuals:

Becky Wolsk Biographies
Catherine Mardikes Software and design, University of Chicago
Charles Blair University of Chicago
Christina Allen Indexer, Access Innovations
Christina Keller Indexing, Proofing, Mark-up
Dana Pratt Licensing.
Daniel Donnelly Indexer, Access Innovations
Darryl Baker Sourcing, Proofing, Mark-up
Debbie Bishop Manuscript transcriptions
Debbie Warila Indexer, Access Innovations
Diane R. Schnurrpusch Helped build the North American Women's Letters and Diaries thesaurus
Eileen Lawrence Research, Alexander Street Press
Elisabeth Long University of Chicago
George Chinnery Sourcing, Proofing, Mark-up
Graham Dimmock Software Development
Heather Hlava Project Manager, Access Innovations
Janice Cronin Finance, Alexander Street Press
Jeff Hurt Images, SGML correction
John Cicero Software Development
John O'Keefe Indexing, Proofing, Mark-up
Kelly Connor Indexing, Proofing, Mark-up
Kristin Shumaker Mark-up
Laura Gosling Assistant Editor, Alexander Street Press
Margaret Morris Project Manager, Access Innovations
Mark Olsen Software and design, University of Chicago
Ning Zhu Software Development
Pam Wilcox Indexer, Access Innovations
Pat Carlson Editor, Alexander Street Press
Phyllis Holman Weisbard Assistance with selection of material
Scott Roberts Developer, Access Innovations
Sheila Webb Biographies
Sheryl Hill Indexing, Proofing, Mark-up
Stephanie Korney Project Manager, Access Innovations
Vickie Manolakis Re-keying
Will Whalen Licensing, Sourcing, Proofing, Mark-up


In addition, many thanks to the charter customers listed below, who believed in our projects and gave us their early support. These libraries purchased perpetual access to North American Women's Letters and Diaries and our other databases within the first six months after Alexander Street Press came into being:
Boston College CDL (University of California, all campuses)
Columbia University Emory University
Harvard University Johns Hopkins University
Michigan State University New York University
Ohio State University Penn State University
Stanford University University of Chicago
University of Notre Dame University of Wisconsin
Vassar College Yale University

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11.   How to contribute materials or comments

Our goal is to create a unique archive of letters and diaries according to the editorial criteria expressed above. We welcome contributions from organizations and individuals, especially if you have materials that are unpublished or of unique interest. Submitting materials to our editors is easy and without obligation on your part. If you have collections of substantial value, we may be able to pay you a royalty in return for the rights to use them.

  • To submit materials for inclusion in North American Women's Letters and Diaries,
    please e-mail Will Whalen at or mail them to him at 3212 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
  • If you are a commercial publisher who would like to discuss licensing materials for inclusion in the database,
    please contact Stephen Rhind-Tutt at or 1-800-889-5937 or 1-703-212-8522.
  • To report factual errors or to suggest improvements, please email us at Please include the author, the document,
    and the page number. Please also include your email address, so that we can let you know the status of your correction.

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12.   Copyright

All materials in North American Women's Letters and Diaries are protected under U.S. and International Copyright Law. Fair use under the law permits reproduction of single copies for personal research and private use. Further transmission, reproduction, or presentation of protected items requires the written permission of the copyright owners.

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13.   Archiving

Texts produced for North American Women's Letters and Diaries are considered research materials and receive the same level of stewardship as books, paper documents, and photographs. Once complete, copies of the database will be given to all purchasing institutions, so ensuring that the materials are available to subsequent generations.

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14.   Cataloging records

MARC records are available for this collection. Please ask your customer service representative for details.


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