October 2008
Card Files

"A local historian must be a multifaceted individual—with a good deal of stamina—a person who is self-motivated and happy working alone, yet someone who works well cooperatively too, a person who cares to get the whole story and to get it as accurately as possible."

-- Carol Kammen in On Doing Local History

Among the archival materials at the Alexandria Library is a variety of fascinating card file indexes, many compiled by local women historians. Above are some examples showing the range and detail of information that can be found in these unique resources. At the top left is a card from Betty Harrington MacDonald’s index of Alexandria seamen from the 1820s-1860s. The top right and bottom left cards are part of Edith Moore Sprouse’s vast (8 boxes!) card index to local subjects and newspapers. At the bottom right is a card from Ethelyn Cox’s card files, which document Alexandria's historic buildings.

Card files are an efficient way to organize and index large amounts of material and were widely used before computers made even larger, searchable databases possible. Local history repositories as well as libraries of all sizes used card files for many years for specialized indexes as well as for their main collections in the form of the card catalog. Not surprisingly, it was Melvil Dewey of Dewey Decimal fame who standardized the dimensions of the catalog card in the late nineteenth century (Tenner 2005).

The card files above show a portion of the huge amount of specialized information that was extracted and organized by the compilers. Betty Harrington MacDonald did extensive research at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Public Records Office in London; her card file makes specific, detailed information about nineteenth century Alexandria sailors readily accessible. The sailors’ cards show their name, race, height, complexion and hair color; places of birth and residence; what ships they sailed on and ports of call, and sometimes have additional notes. Edith Moore Sprouse’s card files reflect hours spent combing through local newspapers as well as interviews and fieldwork in Alexandria and Fairfax, and cover a wide geographical and subject range. With no comprehensive index to the Alexandria Gazette currently existing, this file is an excellent way to get a sense of the paper's coverage over time. Ethelyn Cox's card file is in support of her book Historic Alexandria Virginia Street by Street, a standard reference work ever since its publication.

Some of Alexandria's Female Historians

Edith Moore Sprouse (1923-2004): “She always had this instinct of where to look and kept at it.”
Edith Moore Sprouse moved to the Alexandria area after graduating from Wellesley and worked for the Army Map Service before beginning intensive local history work in 1960. Her books included Potomac Sampler and Fairfax County in 1860: A Collective Biography. The rare book room at Alexandria Library Special Collections is named after her.

Ethelyn Cox (1909-1988): "...a meticulous but unassuming scholar."
Ethelyn Cox moved to Alexandria in 1935 and became interested in local history while investigating her own new house on Prince Street in 1948. Her best known work is the book Historic Alexandria Virginia Street by Street, published in 1977. Cox was also a founding member and active in the Historic Alexandria Foundation.

Eleanor Lee Templeman (1906-1990):
Eleanor Lee Reading Templeman was an artist, local historian, author, and preservationist. Her work concentrated on the Lee family, and she self-published several books including The Virginia Homes of the Lees and Arlington Heritage: Vignettes of a Virginia County. Templeman was also active in the movement to preserve Sully plantation and the creation of Leesylvania State Park.