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Mary Sheldon Barnes papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00217

Scope and Contents

The Mary Sheldon Barnes Papers consist of eight linear feet of correspondence, creative and professional writings, artwork, juvenilia, line-a-day diaries, notes, teaching materials, memorabilia, scrapbooks, and photographs. The material dates from 1857 to 1948 (bulk dates 1880 to 1898). Although Barnes did not work directly with women's history, her papers provide a particularly interesting insight into the personal and professional life of an academic woman historian of the late 19th century and the relationship between two academic scholars. They also are a valuable source of information on historiography.

There are additional Mary Sheldon Barnes papers housed at Penfield Library, Special Collections, State University of New York at Oswego. Earl Barnes' papers, the Sheldon Family Papers, and faculty papers of Mary's four siblings are also in the Penfield Library.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1857-1948
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1880-1898


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

The Sophia Smith Collection owns copyright to the unpublished writings of Mary Sheldon Barnes. Copyright to materials created by other individuals may be owned by those individuals or their heirs or assigns. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights. Permission must be obtained from the Sophia Smith Collection to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use."

Biographical / Historical

Mary Downing Sheldon was born in Oswego, New York, on September 15, 1850, the oldest of five children of Frances Stiles and Edward Austin Sheldon, founder and principal of Oswego State Normal and Training School. She was educated in the public schools of Oswego until age sixteen, finishing at the Normal School in 1869. She taught there for two years. In 1871 Sheldon enrolled at the University of Michigan in a classical course, graduating in 1874. She returned to Oswego Normal to teach history, Latin, Greek and botany. In late 1876 she was invited to teach history at Wellesley College where she remained for two and one half years. Her teaching methods, unorthodox for the time and later called the source method, included the use of primary sources, discussion, and problem solving. Because of internal conflicts at Wellesley and poor health she resigned in 1879 and spent a year resting and then two years traveling abroad. She returned to Oswego Normal in 1882 where she wrote her groundbreaking work Studies in General History. It was published in 1885.

On August 6, 1885, she married a former student, Earl Barnes, who was eleven years her junior. Barnes, a teacher of history and psychology, was appointed head of the department of education at Stanford University in 1891. Mary joined the Stanford history department in March 1892 as assistant professor. She taught nineteenth-century European history and the history of the Pacific Slope. Together the they wrote Studies in American History which was published in 1891 and 1896. Mary subsequently published Studies in Historical Method. It was directed toward teachers and nonhistorians who wanted to understand and apply the historical method.

Both Mary and Earl Barnes resigned their posts at Stanford in 1897 to travel and write in Europe. Mary Sheldon Barnes died of heart disease in London, August 27, 1898. According to the author of Barnes' biography in Notable American Women, "[her importance] in American educational history rests chiefly upon her often misunderstood source method. She intended that students should study the primary sources in an 'independent and solitary' way using her questions as guides to problem order to develop the student's abilities to observe, to weigh evidence, to generalize and to exercise creative historical imagination....This was a more progressive approach than many teachers of her time or later could understand or apply....The source method hastened the improvement of more conventional history textbooks. Critical thinking came to characterize some of the better general education courses a half century later." (Robert E. Keohane in "Mary Sheldon Barnes," Notable American Women, 1607-1950, Cambridge, Belknap Press, 1971)


11.563 linear feet (22 containers)


Professor and historian. Papers include creative and professional writings, artwork, diaries, teaching materials, scrapbooks, and photographs. The material provides insight into the coming of age and later professional academic life of a woman historian of the late 19th century. They are also a valuable source of information on the development of historiography. Correspondents include academics and fellow historians of the period.


This collection is organized into four series:

  1. I. Biographical Material
  2. II. Correspondence
  3. III. Writings
  4. IV. Photographs and Memorabilia

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Mary Sheldon Barnes and Earl Barnes Papers were donated by Betty Barnes, daughter-in- law of Earl Barnes and his second wife, Anna Koehler Barnes, in 1985 and 1986.

Related Material

Additional Mary Sheldon Barnes papers are housed at the Penfield Library Special Collections, State University of New York at Oswego. The papers of Earl Barnes, the Sheldon Family, and Mary's four siblings are also in the Penfield Library.

Separated Material

Earl Barnes' papers (18 linear feet) and some Sheldon family papers were transferred to the State University of New York at Oswego Special Collections where the papers of the Sheldon family are also held.

Processing Information

Processed by Susan Boone, 2001.

Mary Sheldon Barnes papers
Finding Aid
Susan Boone
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss2 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:13-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063