Preserving Kansas City Women’s History

As part of Preservation Week, we are highlighting one of the recent projects here at the Kansas City Public Library: the preservation of the Athenaeum Collection.

The collection, donated to the Library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections in July, 2012 by the Kansas City Athenaeum Board of Directors, includes the minutes, membership records, building blueprints, and photographs from the archives of this historic women’s organization.

The Athenaeum is the oldest active Kansas City women's club, founded in 1894. The history of the Athenaeum is closely tied with that of Kansas City, as its members campaigned for the betterment of our community. Over the years, the Athenaeum has been instrumental in advocating for women’s suffrage, juvenile court reforms, child labor laws, and educational reform.

The first Athenaeum president, Mary Harmon Weeks, was a leader in the public kindergarten movement and started the first Parent Teacher Association in Missouri. And Phoebe Jane Ess, a charter member and later president of the Athenaeum, guided the local women’s suffrage movement, also organizing the Susan B. Anthony Civic Club. Both of these organizations moved Jackson County toward becoming one of the first counties in Missouri to adopt women’s suffrage.

Today the Athenaeum is still active with philanthropy supporting Missouri Girls Town which it helped found, and has even started allowing membership by men in recent years.

Though the Athenaeum’s clubhouse at 900 East Linwood Boulevard is an historic structure built in 1913-1914 and nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the environmental conditions inside the building were detrimental to its historical collection, necessitating its removal to preserve the records for future generations.

The Athenaeum Collection, now occupying a full shelving unit within the Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Central Library, follows the organization from its founding in 1894 up through 2012, and includes the correspondence, newsletters, minutes, and other memorabilia.

Included as well are the annual albums compiled by the members, which contain everything from photographs and pressed flowers to membership and financial records, providing great insight into the daily lives and activities of the club members.

The Kansas City Public Library was awarded a Missouri Historical Records Grant in December 2012 to help preserve this collection. The funds are being used primarily for rehousing the records in new enclosures and better storage materials. This will allow the collection to be more stable long-term and safer for public access and future digitization.

Archivist Lucinda Adams is working with special collections librarian Kate Hill and project director Eli Paul, arranging and describing the collection, as well as adding the Athenaeum Collection to the MVSC’s online catalog. Currently the Athenaeum Collection is open only to Athenaeum members. The general public may have access once it is stabilized and cataloged. The estimated completion date of the preservation project is November 2014.

About the Author

Liesl Christman

Liesl Christman is the Digital Content Specialist for The Kansas City Public Library, managing content for the Library's blogs and social media accounts. She is an unabashed enthusiast of comic books, roller derby, and all things food.

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