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From AJR,   April/May 2009  issue

Don’t Empty That Inbox   

The National Women & Media Collection seeks journalists’ documents.


By Lindsay Gsell
Lindsay Gsell is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Correction appended

Think twice before you throw out that clutter on your desk or empty your computer's recycle bin. Believe it or not, somebody wants those used reporter's notebooks, old tape recordings and marked-up copy.

The National Women & Media Collection at the University of Missouri-Columbia documents the history of women in media both as producers and as objects of coverage. Now, as the industry is swiftly transforming, the collection and its boosters, the Friends of the NWMC, have launched a drive to urge more women to donate materials to the archives.

"It's an extraordinary time in American journalism, an unbelievable time," says Jean Gaddy Wilson, cofounder of the collection. "We're in this massive shift where people are getting laid off — good people, smart people, great journalists — and we want to capture those materials because they'll be lost, totally lost. We want people to know those stories."

The upheaval also presents an opportunity, says Glenda Holste, a Friend of the NWMC and a former president of the Journalism & Women Symposium , an organization that brings together female journalists, educators and researchers from across the country. "It's a good time for people making a segué out of newspapers to pack up that part of their life and share it with others."

Not only will the collection accept old materials, it stands ready to sort them — and even try to make sense of scribbled notes. "As long as [donors] pay to send the box to the university, somebody there will organize it and chronicle it so it can be set up, accessed and archived, so it's not just sitting in somebody's storage locker somewhere," says Mindi Keirnan, a former Knight Ridder vice president and a member of the Friends of the NWMC.

The collection stores documents and other materials in a fireproof, temperature-controlled space. Its holdings record women's achievements and their struggle for equality in the industry. "We need to be sure that the contribution that women made is never forgotten," Keirnan says.

Writers' archives used to focus mostly on printed material, but the collection also wants e-mails, cell phone records, CDs, zip drives, flash drives, floppy disks and digital images. It accepts professional and personal letters, notebooks, photos, memos, diaries, memoirs, speeches, reports, research files, meeting minutes, programs, microfilms and video and audio files.

So far, the archive contains the papers of prominent women journalists including Tad Bartimus, founder of the Journalism & Women Symposium; Gloria Biggs, the first female publisher of a Gannett newspaper; Mary Paxton Keeley, the first female journalism graduate; Beverly Kees, the first female executive editor in the now-defunct Knight Ridder chain; Geneva Overholser, former Des Moines Register editor and director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication; and Theo Wilson, who covered the Pentagon Papers and Patty Hearst trials for New York's Daily News.

The Friends of the NWMC are reaching out to fellow journalists in hopes of finding more donors. "Each of us is using our own personal Rolodexes to make people aware of the project," says Vivian Vahlberg, who was elected the first female president of the National Press Club in 1982. "We've already had some good success, and we've gotten a great response from people who think the project is very fascinating."

The collection has discovered that many women don't realize their materials are worth archiving. Wilson explains that seemingly ordinary documents and memos provide an authentic look at women and the media.

"Maybe people think only presidents have materials that are worth a library; that's just not true," Wilson says. "Women in journalism live in worlds where they help us see what the future is bringing us and help us see what the past has been like."

She hopes women of all ages will donate their work. This is not "a collection for people at the end of their career," she says, but a "living, breathing testimony" to women in the industry.

Gsell (lgsell@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled the last name of Mindi Keirnan.