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North American Women’s Letters and Diaries

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picture of a nurse during WWII

In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to highlight the database North American Women’s Letters and Diaries, which contain letters and diaries for approximately 1,325 women in over 150,000 pages. It’s the largest collection of its kind. The letters and diaries are from women of all ages and ethnicities that were collected from primarily published sources, but also about 6,000 unpublished sources as well. All documents in the database date from colonial times to the mid twentieth century.

As the name implies, letters and diaries are from all over North America – all 50 U.S. states, all Canadian provinces, Greenland, Caribbean Islands, and Mexico. However, the database also includes manuscripts and memoirs to and from Central and South America as well as Africa, Asia, Australia, and various countries in Europe. The only continent not represented is Antarctica.

There are many options for finding information. You can “browse”, “find”, or “search” the database. Browse has five options: author, source, year, place, historical event, and personal event. Find as two choices – author and source. Search as both a simple search and an advanced search. These features provide very thorough search capabilities for this database, but how they work may not be how you expect. Below is a summary of how each option (browse, find, and search) work.

Browsing by author presents you with an alphabetical list of 1,324 authors of the letters and diaries. Each line shows how many letters and diaries for that person are included in the database. For example:

Ackerman, Grace 1917-1919 81 letters, 0 diaries, 81 manuscripts, 0 memoirs, all docs

In this case, her 81 letters are the same as her 81 manuscripts, so there are a total of 81 entries for Grace Ackerman in the database.

There are 605 sources to browse. The sources are presented in bibliographic format in alphabetical order by title. Many titles in the list include an annotation of the source. Browsing by year gives a chronological list of sources beginning in 1675 and ending in 2002. The actual letters and diaries stop much closer to 1950, but may have been published up to 2002.

Places are the countries, states, provinces, and towns/cities that documents were either written in, addressed to, or mentioned within the text. As stated before, all 50 states are included, but there are also specific towns. There are 636 documents that were either written in, sent to, or mention 39 specific towns in North Carolina. Clicking on a location gives you a list of sources in order by title.

Events can be broken down into historical events as well as personal events – wars as well as adoption, for example. Browsing by historical events produces a list of events in chronological order, beginning with the French and Indian Wars and ending with Vietnam. Personal events gives a list of 39 potential topics and the number of documents that mention each event.

In addition to browsing is a “find” option. Finding is a lot like searching, but only includes finding authors or sources that fit certain criteria. There are cases when finding by source and finding by author overlap, but only when the author of a source is the same as the author of a document. For example, using the find tool on the name Grace Ackerman produces the same results under both source and author because she published her own document.

Alternatively, you can perform a search – either a simple search or advanced search. If doing a simple search, you can search by author of a document, the year the document was written, the type of document (whether letter or diary), and the subject matter. An advanced search gives the option to search full text as well as include the following: age, marital status, maternal status, race, religion, occupation, month and year written, where written, and events mentioned.

The database is a great resource to learn about the lives of women in the 17th-20th centuries at a time when women left so few documents. As an added bonus, if you are a North Carolina resident, you can access this database through your local library’s card thanks to NCLive! Talk to your local librarian how you can access this from home.

Hope to see you at the Government and Heritage Library and we can also help you with finding your female ancestors. Send us a request for assistance.


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