Constructing the Online Biographical Dictionary, 2015-2020
By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Binghamton
The Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States (OBD) has grown by fits and starts, emerging out of an initial database of militant women suffragists in the National Woman's Party (NWP) assembled by Jill D. Zahniser and published in Women and Social Movements in the United States (WASM) in March 2015. In that initial publication, we invited prospective volunteers to write biographical sketches for 190 NWP activists who had picketed the White House between 1917 and 1919, an approach known as "crowdsourcing." Responses to our initial call were so strong that by the summer of 2015 we returned to Dr. Zahniser and asked her if she could find additional NWP activists for sketches.
Our volunteers provided us with still more names of NWP activists arising from their research on the names we provided them. They discovered additional NWP-sponsored demonstrations in Boston and New York City in 1919. Since then we have steadily added new protesters and arrestees to the database. As of this writing (in November 2020) the NWP portion of the project has grown to include 420 suffragists.
Well before we launched our database of NWP militant suffragists, we had begun a project to publish on WASM the writings of black women suffragists. Beginning in 2008, I coordinated with Professor Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and identified 70 black women suffragists whose writings we proposed to publish online. The work proceeded slowly, but in March 2014 we published the first 150 documents as part of a Primary Source Set that we anticipated would eventually include 1,100 items. As we looked for additional writings of suffragists, typically in the texts and footnotes of scholarly journal articles, we also came upon new suffragists to add to our group of 70. Unlike the first group, of mostly nationally-prominent suffragists, most of the new black suffragists were quite unknown to most historians. As the number of black suffragists grew first to 200, then to 350, and now to 430, the nature of the project expanded. The number of our suffragists' writings grew to more than 1,900 and we decided to crowdsource biographical sketches for these grassroots activists. The fact that we had been successfully crowdsourcing biographical sketches for NWP militant suffragists gave us the confidence to expand that effort to this new group of suffragists.
And once we were working on these first two groups of suffragists, it seemed important to expand the project further to include mainstream suffragists associated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. This was, of course, a much larger group of suffragists with state and local branches in all 48 states in the early twentieth century. Looking for a likely contemporary source to identify NAWSA activists, we discovered that volume six of The History of Woman Suffrage consisted of more than 700 pages of state reports on the woman suffrage movement for the period 1900-1920. We recorded the names of more than 2,600 local suffrage activists mentioned in these reports. This period corresponded roughly to the period of greatest activity for NWP and black suffragists, facilitating comparisons and contrasts across the three groups. The expansion of the project was logical, but perhaps a bit foolhardy, given that our database now promised to include more than 3,000 suffrage activists.
As the work proceeded and the number of suffragists expanded exponentially, we approached our online publisher, Alexander Street, to propose that the Online Biographical Dictionary not be confined entirely to subscription-based WASM. We proposed that the new resource be offered in two formats—as a freely-accessible database and as part of WASM. Given the massive investment of volunteer labor, the significant labor that Alexander Street staff were putting into the project, and the value of more than 3,000 original biographical sketches of suffrage activists, we argued that this resource should reach as broad an audience as possible. We were pleased that Alexander Street accepted our argument and built the OBD to display on two distinct platforms—as a free-standing, freely accessible website at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN and within WASM, accessible through subscribing academic libraries.
Once we had settled on the dual platforms for the database, we still needed to make the crowdsourcing work and attract enough volunteers to research and write so many biographical sketches. Revolutionary changes in the accessibility of online sources made this project possible now, in the early 21st century. The digitization of primary sources through such databases as ancestry.com and newspapers.com increased the resources that volunteers could access in the course of researching and writing biographical sketches. The ability, for instance, to search in African American newspapers for references to "suffrage" or "woman suffrage" or for names of individual suffragists made it possible to track a relatively obscure black suffragist and often generate a quite complete individual biography. One example can highlight this point. Naomi Talbert was a black activist known for her participation in post-Civil War woman suffrage meetings in Chicago, with her activism reported in The Revolution, edited by Stanton and Anthony, and in local newspapers. As Naomi Talbert Anderson she was also quite well-known as a black stump speaker in California during the unsuccessful suffrage referendum campaign in 1896. But only when I searched in newspapers.com for "Naomi Anderson" with no location restriction for the period 1870-1900 did I discover 95 stories in Kansas newspapers that mentioned her activism in the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, the African Methodist Episcopal church, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, in protests against racial segregation in schools, as well as the suffrage movement. The newspaper index revealed an intermediate stop in Kansas for Talbert Anderson on her way to California in 1896.
The online accessibility and indexing of census listings and vital records also make it possible to sketch the outlines of suffragists' personal lives, complementing what can be learned from newspaper sources about their public activism. Thus I began with Alice Wiley Seay, a black activist in the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn in the period 1900-1915 and eventually traced her back to her birth in south-central Virginia in 1858 (probably enslaved), through her marriage to a tobacco farmer in the mid-1880s, to the couple's migration to Brooklyn in the 1890s, to her founding of the Empire State Federation of [Colored] Women's Clubs in 1908, to her 1910 marriage to a second Virginia tobacco farmer and her return to Virginia in 1916, and lastly to her death there in 1937. Finally, a Brooklyn newspaper reported on the memorial service held for Seay in Brooklyn attended by 300 of her former neighbors. It's a life story that could not have been reconstructed twenty years ago.
When my outreach to volunteers began with NWP militant suffragists I knew that I had to use the internet to reach out beyond my own networks. I relied initially on the listservs, websites, and Facebook pages of groups with a broad reach; H-Women, the National Women's History Project, and the American Association for State and Local History were the first three I contacted. Later on I reached more targeted groups through listservs of the American Library Association. Individual librarians in North Carolina and Louisiana also publicized the project through their listserv groups. State suffrage centennial groups were already in place when this project launched and we partnered with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library of Virginia, and the Texas State Historical Association to share work and share sketches. In the early stages of the work with NAWSA suffragists I took advantage of the fact that our source was divided into state reports and I was able to recruit more than 40 volunteers to serve as state coordinators for the NAWSA crowdsourcing. These individuals reached out to potential volunteers to write sketches of suffragists in their state, and then copyedited and fact checked volunteers' submissions. Many of the state coordinators did additional research and added to initial drafts of the sketches; many were or became experts on the suffrage movements in their states and added notable state activists to the database, recruiting new volunteers to work up additional sketches. All three groups of suffragists grew substantially as the work progressed.
A second group of volunteers contributed beyond their mere numbers—faculty mentors. Early on in the course of the project I wrote to faculty teaching women's history or African American history courses and asked if they would be interested in offering an assignment in one of their classes to have students write biographical sketches of suffragists. Faculty members typically integrated the assignment into their course syllabi and prepared the students for successful engagement with the research and writing. Faculty often involved a reference librarian to offer a hands-on library research workshop to acquaint students with available online, archival or printed resources for this research. Finally, the most engaged of the faculty spent considerable time after the course was completed copyediting and fact checking their students' work. Often these faculty subsequently sponsored independent studies with students. Several faculty have repeated the assignment two or three years running in different classes. These teachers share their knowledge and enthusiasm with their classes and the project has benefited enormously from their work with students.
New resources came into play and more contributors emerged as the work progressed. In March 2019 we published on our freely-accessible website the first 900+ biographical sketches and in June and December we posted additional sketches, bringing the number up to 2,140. That number is now almost 3,700 in November 2020. These sketches have themselves become resources for volunteers working on new sketches. Each offers a narrative of the local reform activities that engaged suffragists. They also note sources that point other researchers in valuable directions. The activists knew and worked with each other so reviewing a number of biographical sketches of suffragists in one state provides context for further research. The existence of full-text searching on the OBD site facilitates cross-fertilization across sketches. One other development follows from the publication of the first sketches: interested and often very well-informed readers come to the site, review biographical sketches, and write us with editorial suggestions to improve the sketches. As the project director I review these suggestions and we often edit sketches further and post revised sketches. In this way the scholarly and popular audiences for the database revise the site in an iterative process much like that pioneered by Wikipedia.
I've introduced one additional layer of review to the process for some of the sketches. Periodically I notice a cluster of local suffrage activists in a city or state and I know the related work of a scholar—usually one that our volunteers have relied upon. I write to that scholar and ask if she could take the time to read and offer editorial suggestions for a group of related sketches. In this way I've drawn on a scholar to review sketches for members of the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, and another to help with sketches of 1877 suffrage petition signers in Washington, D.C., and a third to comment on sketches of black suffragists who marched in the 1913 NAWSA suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. Where I feel my own knowledge about a set of suffrage events has reached a scholarly threshold, I will similarly review and edit sketches that treat those events.
The result is a new historical resource, the Online Biographical Dictionary, that is very much the product of a collective undertaking. Contributors range from well-mentored high school students to professional historians. Numerous teachers and librarians are among our authors. Retirees stand out, having time and skills to contribute multiple sketches to the database. Together we're creating a resource that should help make suffrage activists and their stories more visible to scholars and the broad public. Spurred perhaps by the passage of the woman suffrage centennial in August 2020, more people discovered the Online Biographical Dictionary and have used its accessible and authoritative resources to learn more about a social movement that contributed mightily to the vitality of American democracy.