The Search is On (Again)!

Between 1976 and 1983 the original staff of the Jane Addams Papers Project, led by Mary Lynn Bryan, undertook a massive search for Addams documents, searching thousands of archival collections and locating documents in 574 of them. These documents, microfilmed in 1996, will serve as the base of the new Jane Addams Digital Edition. We estimate that they found almost 20,000 letters from the period between 1901 and 1935. They also found evidence that not everything had been preserved. Some documents were lost, but others were deliberately destroyed.

No historian likes to hear stories like this:

According to Ellen Starr Brinton, Curator of the Swarthmore Peace Collection, “A chance call on Jane Addams in Hull House, Chicago, just when she was burning personal papers on the fireplace was the beginning of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.”(1)

or to see what Addams wrote to her nephew and biographer, James Linn shortly before her death:

Jane Addams, ca. 1935.

I have been going over a box full of letters of mine to Mary Smith. They quite filled a drawer of her desk–all sorts of notes. I am destroying a good many and sending others–a lot in fact–on to you. Not that you will want to use them, I hope, but they will give you a certain ‘feel’ of the 1890s, etc. Among those am I destroying are the purely family ones–of her family or mine–but I am sending a few on to you that you may want to read first. Please ‘read–destroy.’ (March 8, 1935)(2)

We are grateful that Linn didn’t do it–what little correspondence remains between Mary Rozet Smith and Jane Addams survives because of Linn’s disobedience.

The Addams Papers editors searched archives and libraries, located private collections, found articles published in newspapers and locked away in attics and basements. As they did so, they identified other holes in the Addams archive, the most prominent being:

  • All but two of Hull-House’s complex was razed to build the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle in 1963.

    Some key Addams’ diaries are missing, including the ones that chronicled her visit to Toynbee Hall, where she and Ellen Gates Starr hit upon the idea to open Hull-House.

  • Manuscripts for many of her books have not been found.
  • Many of Hull-House’s records were destroyed accidentally when a basement they were stored in flooded during construction.
  • After Addams’ death, her family sold or donated various parts of her papers and the family papers to a number of archives, scattering the Addams archive.

As any researcher knows, you can never find everything. Even if you search all known collections for Addams materials, the day that you stop looking, a new collection will be deposited at an archive or an existing collection will finally be processed (described and organized by archivists) and reveal new Addams documents.

As we embark on building a digital edition of Jane Addams’ correspondence and writings, it is time to do another search.

A New World

The last Addams search was done 30 years ago and a world away when you think about it in terms of technological advances. As we begin our search, we have so many research tools that the editors in the 1970s and 1980s  did not.

All right, it wasn’t quite that bad!

We used to consult incomplete printed guides to locate archives and libraries that might have holdings. The NUCMC (National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections) was organized by state and city, and editors used to tackle a few pages at a time, writing letters (yes, actual letters!) to them seeking information about their holdings. Smaller libraries might not even be listed. Now we can search the web to find libraries and archives and use databases like ArchiveGrid that provide information and links to specific archival collections, in many cases letting us see the finding aids that describe them. These guides are often so detailed that we can simply e-mail the archives and ask them to look in specific folders and send copies.

We actually had one like this at the Margaret Sanger Papers in the 1990s.

We actually had one like this at the Margaret Sanger Papers in the 1990s.

To locate newspaper articles written by Addams, or about her activities, editors had access to very few indexed newspapers, and often had to scan old newspapers on microfilm, hoping to find coverage.  Looking for journals was a bit easier, as many were indexed, but obtaining copies from them could take months as we relied on inter-library loans and letters (again!) to libraries and archives. Now many journals and newspapers, especially those published before 1923 are available online, through large sites like Google Books, the Digital Public Library of America, the Hathi Trust, or the Internet Archive. Old newspapers are becoming more easy to access, through sites like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, though many sites require subscriptions. The Addams Papers has access to ProQuest’s historical newspapers,, and a number of other databases that we will be able to search, both for missing Addams documents, and for details on her life and travels.

Count of microfilmed correspondenceWhat happened in 1923?

Some things have not changed. It is still a complex process, but one that technology helps us to master.  Creating visualizations, like the graph below, have shown us a new potential gap in the collection–the sudden reduction of documents written by Jane Addams in 1923. A serious decline in her usual production might mean a box of documents was lost or destroyed, perhaps she wrote less because she was traveling the world, or because she became ill. Using databases to enter all potential sources of new Addams documents allows us to track our progress in contacting them and obtaining materials.  In many cases, we will still have to do the leg work of visiting the archives, checking through boxes and boxes of material, and making copies and scans.

We have started by listing the archival collections that do not appear in the microfilm. We will search these, by e-mail and in person, and then check the documents found against what was filmed on the microfilm (some could be duplicates). We plan to search digitized newspaper sites and e-journals looking for Addams articles that might have slipped through the original search, and will also look to European archives, which are also far more accessible using digital tools than they ever were before. With luck, we can add to the substantial work done to build the Addams microfilm to make available even more of Jane Addams’s documents.


(1) Mary McCree Bryan, The Jane Addams Papers: A Comprehensive Guide, (1996), p. 68.

(2) Mary McCree Bryan, The Jane Addams Papers: A Comprehensive Guide, (1996), p. 69.

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