Within the walls of the University Libraries’ Special Collections department is a treasure of research projects waiting to happen: the life’s work and correspondence of more than 400 women who practiced architecture and design around the world from the 1800s through present day.

Currently, the architectural drawings, design sketches, personal and professional correspondence, project files, business records, and photographs that comprise the collections can only be viewed in person.

But now, with the support of a $232,356 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), the University Libraries at Virginia Tech will digitize and document a significant part of the collection, making the work of 30 women architects freely accessible to the world in an online repository.

“We are honored by this opportunity to expand public access to the unprecedented scholarly resources of Virginia Tech's International Archive of Women in Architecture,” said Sam Winn, Collections Archivist at the University Libraries.

The Women of Design: Revealing Women’s Hidden Contributions to the Built Environment project was one of just 17 projects selected for funding out of 144 proposals to CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Collections program. The program seeks to digitize collections of rare and unique content in cultural memory institutions, prioritizing collections that have high scholarly value.

“CLIR’s program to provide online access to hidden collections fits perfectly with the goal of the University Libraries to use technology to make complex and difficult to use analog research materials accessible online,” said Aaron Purcell, director of the University Libraries’ Special Collections.

Virginia Tech’s International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) is the world’s largest and longest continually operating program of its kind, offering a rare glimpse into the lives and professional work of women in the built environment. The IAWA comprises over 2,000 cubic feet of unique materials on more than 400 individual women, organizations, and exhibits.

Women are traditionally underrepresented in the architecture field, making the collections especially important for exploring pioneering women’s contributions to architecture and design.

“These collections document the historic and often unseen contributions of women to the built environment around the world, with tremendous research potential for scholars of women's history, social movements, immigration, higher education, and the evolution of architecture and design practice,” Winn said. “The collections selected for digitization under this project provide a compelling snapshot of 20th century gender and labor issues, including the experiences of women emigres in the U.S. workforce and women working in traditionally male fields.”

Over the next two years, the Women of Design project will digitize 35,000 items from the collections of 30 women architects from ten different countries who worked in the United States between 1929 and 2010.

“Digital access will allow researchers to search for the same feature, structure, or design across many collections which would be difficult, if not impossible, in a traditional reading room environment,” added Purcell. “And the content is more than unique–it represents a chorus of hidden voices that have yet to be fully heard by scholars, students, and architects. Many mass-digitization projects sacrifice quality in favor of quantity, but this project is focused on creating thousands of high-quality digital files with rich metadata and searchable information. We are thrilled to watch this project develop over the next two years and have it lead the University Libraries into new digital territory.”

CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Collections program is generously funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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