A new generation of feminist scholars
Jess deCourcy Hinds, a library director and writer, has written for Newsweek, the New York Times, Ms., and School Library Journal. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters is hosting an International Women’s Day live blog on March 8, 2011.
I am the librarian at Bard High School Early College in Queens, New York, where my students speak 34 languages, from Albanian to Urdu to Tibetan. And Iâm proud to say that these bright, culturally diverse students are learning about feminist historyâsome as early as 9th grade. Â I had to wait until graduate school to become a feminist scholar with the kind of research opportunities my youngest students have now.
My students read primary source documents about slaves and suffragettes on the Library of Congress website. They stream videos of labor activists through the Womenâs History Archives of Smith College. They find Eleanor Rooseveltâs letters, and listen to Virginia Woolfâs voice in a BBC recordingâon YouTube!Â Multimedia archiving and the digitization of documents present exciting new opportunities for learning about womenâfamous and ordinary.
Sometimes, when Iâm talking with students about the limitlessness of womenâs history resources, the opportunities for under-represented women to have their stories finally told, Iâll find myself overcome with emotion. âCalm down, Miss,â a student once said with a smile. âDonât hyperventilate.â
But how can you not hyperventilate? My students, many of them first-generation Americans and the first in their families to attend college, are doing real research. They are doing the research that was previously restricted to scholars who possessed letters of introduction, invitations, and appointments. My students and I have none of these things. We are in a public school during a recession. And yet, we are true researchers.
In the morning, students knock on the library door, begging to be let in. âWe open in five minutes!â I call. I savor the first five minutes of the day alone with my coffee cup and my own research. Currently, I am researching Berenice Abbott, the WPA photographer known for her âChanging New Yorkâ photographs of the city. Her work is among 700,000 archived materials in New York Public Libraryâs Digital Gallery.
You donât have to live in New York or own a library card to access the Gallery. Like Google Booksâwhich also digitizes historical booksâthe Gallery is available to anyone with an internet connection. All you need is five quiet minutes in the morning with your coffee cupâor four, depending on the day.
Today I will only have four minutes. Students are rapping on the door, pounding harder. They want in, and come barreling through.
âMorning, Miss!â âWhat new books do you have?â âCan I use a laptop?â âCan I borrow headphones?â âHow do I embed video in PowerPoint?â âWhere are the Shakespeare plays?â
After a few frenzied minutes, everyone settles into different sun-drenched corners. Our school is housed in a former factory that once produced Chiclet gum and cameras. Sun pours through huge windows, bouncing off the concrete pillars. In the distance, an elevated train groans and rattles.
I circle the room, peeking over the studentsâ shoulders. One student is reading Emily Dickinson’s poems. For an English project, she must research what Dickinson would have eaten for dinner, and create an historically accurate dinner menu. In minutes, we access New York Public Libraryâs Digital Gallery and find a 19th century menu from a restaurant in Boston (close enough to Amherst, Mass, where Dickinson lived). Another student raises his hand. He needs help adjusting the volume on his computer so he can listen to interviews with former slaves on PBSâs website.
After borrowing the studentâs headphones and listening to the crackly song of a woman who must be 100 years old, I exclaim, âAmazing!â The study of womenâs history has never been so alive. We are the luckiest feminist scholars of any generation.
Donât hyperventilate, Miss.
Picture credit: A woman stands among the bookshelves in the main reading room of The New York Public Library, in this file picture. REUTERS/Mike Segar