CRM Journal

Media Review

Across the Generations: Exploring U.S. History Through Family Papers

Sophia Smith Collection; maintained by the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Libraries; accessed June 30, 2004.


The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College is an internationally recognized archive of women's history. Founded in 1942, the collection evolved from a body of works by women writers into a rich repository for the documentation of the broader, historical experiences of women. Today, the collection includes more than 7,500 linear feet of multiformat materials including manuscripts, photographs, periodicals, oral histories, and other primary sources. In addition to women's history, one of the other subject areas examined is the documentation of middle-class family life in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Across the Generations is an online presentation of 63 documents and images selected from the Sophia Smith Collection representing the everyday private and public lives of several generations of the Bodman, Dunham, Garrison, and Hale families. The main purpose of the website is to demonstrate how family papers can be used to study not only the lives of a single family, but to examine the broader historical and cultural context in which these and other similar families lived.

In establishing this context, the website authors acknowledge one limitation: the families represented are all white and middle class, a characteristic of many archival collections. The featured families are of some social prominence, such as the Garrisons (descendents of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) and the Hales (descendents of Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale and his entrepreneur son of the same name). The content presented goes beyond the successes of these individuals and focuses on the activities and accomplishments of family members across several generations.

The stories of the families are told through four subfields of social history: Family Life, Social Awareness, Arts and Leisure, and Work. Each historical theme is developed and interpreted through images of collection materials, such as photographs, letters, accounting books, journals, games, sketches, and other documents. Collection materials are accompanied by summaries of the broader historical context that help the viewer understand how documents are used as research tools.

Using the Bodman family account book under the Work section as an example, one can see the economic growth of the family from farming and cart rentals in the late 18th century, through their first payments of the new federal income tax in the early 20th century, to the losses suffered in the Depression of the 1930s. The Arts and Leisure section features a Hale family gift chart including colorful sketches of Christmas gifts given to various family members, accompanied by a paragraph indicating how children and others kept themselves entertained before mass-produced toys and other amusements. The accomplishments of women in these families are highlighted, such as the suffrage activities of Martha Coffin Wright (sister of Lucretia Mott and mother of Ellen Wright Garrison), who encouraged civic and political interests in the women of the next generations.

For those interested in pursuing more in depth research, the site provides extensive family trees and detailed finding aids to each family's papers. A page on Additional Sources includes bibliographies and links to other websites and archives on the featured families, as well as links to general sources on family history, social history, and women's history collections. Also of interest is a link to several classroom lesson plans involving the use of primary documents in historical research.

The website is easily navigated through a drop-down list of categories (such as by family name or historic theme) and benefits from drop-down menus to other sections on each page. Enlarged sets of images are available as pop-up windows, providing a nice browsing tool for viewing collection materials. A site map provides a clear outline of the pages and helps in finding pages within the site.

The documents themselves are well presented. Typed transcripts of handwritten letters are provided, making it much easier to read the content. One drawback is that the layout of the pages requires a great deal of scrolling up and down to view the content, which could be minimized with a reduction of space between the headers, text, and images. Despite this minor design issue, overall the site is successful. The collection materials and informative text are an excellent lesson in using primary research documents. Additionally, the site will appeal to more experienced researchers wishing to probe deeper into the rich materials of the Sophia Smith Collection. Preservation professionals will find Across the Generations to be a rich store of archival materials.

Ann Hoog
Library of Congress