One For The Books - KC Librarian Brings Color to History

Kansas City Public Library

For months, Joanna Marsh returned home from her full-time job in the Central Library archives only to sit down and get right back to work-- this time, creating beautiful, full-page illustrations.


The sweeping and intricate portraits depict historic area women, including a pianist, an abolitionist and a fashion designer. Underneath the sketches are short bios, which Marsh also helped compile.


These stories came together in a coloring book called Women Who Made History. The unique work aims to raise awareness of both the library’s special collections department and women’s history.


“It was actually inspired by another library, [which] had started this campaign called #ColorOurCollections,” Marsh recalls.


“As a department, we thought it was a fun idea, but I was having trouble thinking of something that could translate. I started thinking, ‘Well I could do my own illustrations, based off of people.’”


While Marsh, who describes herself as an artist, archivist, researcher and dancer, has many diverse interests, people stand out as the connecting thread.


Marsh remembers learning about art from her grandmother, a former card designer at Kansas City’s Hall Brothers, the predecessor of Hallmark. This early connection lead her to minor in art throughout college, before going on to pursue a masters in library science.


In her current role, Marsh often assists visitors with research. However, as much as she guides and mentors the library guests, they teach her something, too.


“I came across these Kansas City women while helping researchers,” Marsh explains. “I wasn’t aware of a lot of them before I started working here.”


Now, ask Marsh about any of the 12 figures, and she’ll light up like she’s talking about a friend. After all, she estimates each illustration took her about two hours-- “sometimes it would work the first time, sometimes not,” she adds with a laugh.


Through these revisions and frustrations, Marsh began to appreciate different qualities about each of the women. When talking about Mary Lou Williams, a jazz pianist and composer, Marsh glances back at her illustration and remarks, “I liked drawing the flowers, and I liked how her hair turned out.”


Flipping the page to Tatiana Dokoudovska, a dancer, teacher and founder of the Kansas City Ballet, stirs something deeper.


“I’m a big fan of ballet and a dancer myself, so I’m personally grateful for her contributions,” Marsh acknowledges.


This earnest reaction perhaps sums up a central goal of the project. By dusting off these women’s stories and giving the community a chance to interact with them, Marsh hopes they’ll find someone to relate to, someone to be grateful for and someone to admire


More than anything, Marsh aspires to make people want to learn more.


“I wanted to spark the interest in history and get people interested in doing their own historical research, and in delving into these stories,” she shares.


If you’re interested in picking up a copy of the Women Who Made History coloring book, free copies are available at Kansas City Public Library locations. Print out copies of individual illustrations at