MBDA Project

Just returned from an excellent trip to Berry College where I spent the last two weeks working on the Martha Berry Digital Archive Project. I initiated the project in 2010 and, working collaboratively with Berry Library and Museum staff and students, colleagues in History and English, and a programmer from Penn State, I’m in the process of making the documents in the Martha Berry Collection, including over 160 fileboxes of manuscript and typescript papers (i.e. many, many thousands of papers), freely available for cultural, historical and linguistic research.

The collection is arranged chronologically and includes personal and business letters written to Martha Berry and/or the Berry Schools between 1885 and 1941. Berry was an extraordinary record keeper, and typed copies of virtually every letter composed in response to those received have been retained within the collection, offering a rich and complete picture of the discourse between correspondents.

When letters are reviewed by year, the collection offers a synchronic snapshot of the school, of Berry, of her correspondents, and of the milieu, linguistically as well as historically. When writings are studied across decades, the collection chronicles the longstanding friendships and business relationships maintained by Berry (e.g. decades-long correspondence between Berry and Clara Ford, Berry and Emily Vanderbilt Hammond, Berry and Corra Harris), narratives which are in many cases more compelling in their revelations about those writing to Berry than they are about Berry herself, as, while Berry largely remains on message, focusing her communications primarily on the development of the Berry Schools (an impressive testament to her unwavering devotion to the schools), her correspondents are far more generous in their personal revelations, sharing insights ranging from concerns about the war to educational reform to family gossip.

The scope and range of the collection – from letters imploring Berry to take on a ‘poor child’ to a letter calling on her to participate in a protest against a ladies magazine which published a beer advertisement extolling the virtues of the beverage as a children’s tonic and therein as the key to a calm and happy home to one which criticizes her for the cut of her neckline – yields a fascinating subject. I look forward to sharing more soon as our work continues!