Curating a Life

Martha (Calvert) Slotten and her brother and parents, 1928. Martha shared this picture when recording her childhood memories.

Martha (Calvert) Slotten and her brother and parents, 1928. Martha shared this picture when recording her childhood memories.

Martha Slotten, retired curator of the May Morris Room and college archivist, died Aug. 22, 2013. During her 13 years as curator (1974-87) at Dickinson, she also taught history courses and first-year seminars and was instrumental in founding the Friends of the Library. Below are tributes by some of her former students.  

Robin Wagner '76, library director at Gettysburg College:  

Martha Slotten told me she had the best job because she got to read other people's mail.

As archivist and keeper of special collections., she presided over Dickinson's "attic" of treasures-old books, manuscripts, antique maps, prints and college records stretching back to its earliest days. She organized and cataloged collections of letters and in so doing was privy to the secrets and stories of bygone eras. Martha welcomed me into that world in 1974 and I never left.

I was 20 with three work-study jobs, lots of debt and already worrying how I would pay back my loans when I graduated. One day, while I was on my knees shelving literature books with impossibly long call numbers, an outsized silhouette, clad in her signature floral print, materialized at the end of my shelving range.

"What are you doing down there?" she boomed.

It seemed pretty obvious: Girl on floor, cart of books.

"I mean, why are you shelving books?" she rephrased.

Before I could answer, "Because I am poor, have no social life and considerable debt," she said, "I mean, you are a history major. You should be working with me in the May Morris Room."

Her invitation, which came with enough hours to allow me to give up shelving, opened a door to a world I barely knew-a trove of primary sources, leather-bound books in old script, artifacts from a previous century and files of correspondence from the days when people wrote letters with a fountain pen. The May Morris Room was Martha's clubhouse, and she invited me into the club.

We were an oddball staff—two history majors, a religion major and a "secretary" who Martha most likely hired for her love of books, not her clerical skills. Some days Martha would give us a stack of college publications to file. Another day there would be folders of photographs to label or letters to transcribe. Sometimes she would tell us to chuck the work and offer up fresh baked cookies and cake. In the era before every library had a café and resembled Starbucks, she made us coffee and tea and put out a spread on the edge of her messy desk.

The May Morris Room had an orderly front room for researchers and a quasi-chaotic back room with piles of papers, bankers' boxes and grey files chock full of bad handwriting. Our job was to give order to pandemonium. We had an excellent guide in Martha: She was a natural-born teacher and mentor. She loved her job, and her enthusiasm for all that was old and disorderly was contagious.

Martha wasn't exactly like our mother—more like a raucous aunt—sunny, optimistic and occasionally mischievous. She was big-hearted, with a full-throated, distinctive laugh and warmth that enveloped you the moment you crossed the threshold. She took a personal interest in me at a time when most grown-ups on campus seemed incredibly distant. She asked about my family, learned about my roommates and inquired about my teachers, classes and assignments. She knew what to say when I was having a bad day. She knew when to say nothing. She made me feel like my presence mattered.

Martha was the supreme generalist on a campus of specialists. She could be explaining how Joseph Priestley's scientific equipment worked one minute and discussing the Quakers or coeducation the next. She gave me letters related to the Carlisle Indian School to organize and offered her take on the white man's ruination of Native American culture. She read poetry and talked politics. She was conversant on an eclectic range of topics. Her beloved husband Ralph would often stop by for a visit and to join in the dialogue; their interactions were a model of respect, devotion and tenderness that I hoped I might find some day in a partner.

Martha also gave me an appreciation for my college's history and traditions. She loved to talk about student hijinks from an earlier era and the foibles and scandals of previous generations of campus administrators—most of which were pretty tame by today's standards. She made me care about the people who had walked the campus pathways before me. Dickinson became part of me in a way that surely would not have happened had I not occupied one of her stools in the May Morris Room.

Over the next three and a half decades Martha became a dear friend and regular correspondent. I have my own collection her letters, organized by date in acid-free folders, paper clips removed. She would approve. When I moved to Gettysburg in 1994 I was just down the road and was able to visit in person. That brought the Slotten-Wagner correspondence to an end. In her very last years she wanted to write her autobiography but didn't have the eyesight or stamina to do so. My husband and I brought our digital recorders and let her tell us her stories. We've given them to the Dickinson archives. It feels like a fitting close of the circle.

It was because of Martha Slotten that I became an archivist and librarian and am now a library director. It is because of Martha that in my library we make it a point to reach out to students. I have shared how a single act of thoughtfulness changed my campus experience and my professional direction. I ask my staff to be on the lookout for the shy student, the one that might not fit in so well or be a little lost. Never underestimate the difference a caring grown-up can make. Martha taught me that. I like to think I have passed it forward.

Anne S.K. Turkos '77, university archivist at University of Maryland:  

Since I was an English major who took only a smattering of history courses, I did not spend a great deal of time with Martha Slotten and the treasures of the May Morris Room. I can remember, however, being fascinated by all the wonderful pieces of and stories about Dickinson's history that Martha shared with my classes when we visited her. Joseph Priestley's burning glass, fascinating rare books, 200-year-old letters and diaries, incredible photos—Martha made it all come alive. 

I was a library rat as an undergrad (still am) and one of my favorite places to study in Waidner-Spahr was a carrel right outside Martha's domain. Peering in and seeing those amazing treasures each day fired my imagination, and when it came time to select a career path in library school, archives was an easy choice. Upon receiving my master's in library science and history, I left academe for a bit, working in the Baltimore City Archives and Records Center for four years, but it was always my dream to return to higher education.

Fortunately I was able to join the staff of the University of Maryland Libraries' Special Collections in 1985, and I was promoted to university archivist eight years later. I now clearly understand the joy Martha found in her work with Dickinson's archives. I can only hope that I can convey that joy and excitement of discovery to many generations of Terps, just as Martha did for us Red Devils. She was an inspiration to so many of us, and she will be greatly missed.

Ronald Hershner '78, managing partner at Stock & Leader: 

With the passing of Martha Calvert Slotten, Dickinson lost a good friend, a good Friend and a faithful steward of its history. Through all of her 91 years, Martha lived an exemplary life-she was a loving and supportive daughter, wife, mother and grandmother. She was a diligent archivist and librarian, an inspiring teacher, a dedicated community leader and a passionate political activist. Martha was an example to all who knew her that one could, in fact, be strong yet caring, be religiously devout yet tolerant, study the past yet embrace the future and adhere to principles yet maintain an open mind.

Martha and her husband Ralph, professor emeritus of religion, were an integral part of the Dickinson community. They and their contemporaries who came to Carlisle during the tenure of President Howard "Bud" Rubendall '31 created an academic and socially engaged environment that laid the foundation for the college's excellent campus culture and national reputation today.  

For me, then a kid from a farm near a village called Cross Roads in a corner of York County, Pa., my four years at Dickinson (1974-78) were transformative. I was influenced by and learned from many great professors, fellow students, guest speakers and acquaintances. No person, however, in the course of my education at Dickinson had a greater influence on me than Martha, who became for me a lifelong teacher, mentor, friend and confidant. 

My training as an historian (which I also owe in large measure to Martha) causes me, as I reflect on her influence on my life, to trace the events that led me to the May Morris Room in 1975. My relationship with Martha sprang directly from the fact that I entered college as a terrible writer. The college wisely recognized that I and many of my freshmen classmates lacked good writing skills and thus created a one-day-a-week tutorial in composition to address our inadequacies. I had a weekly appointment in the recently rebuilt Bernard Center (we called it the "barnyard center") with Margaret Garrett, professor emerita of English. My writing improved greatly under Professor Garrett's tutelage but, more important, she recognized my deep interest in history.

I chose to attend Dickinson because I wanted to become a lawyer, and like so many of similar yearning I assumed the best way to do that was to be a political-science major. Yet whenever Professor Garrett let me select the topic for my weekly composition, I chose a historical topic.  Professor Garrett repeatedly urged me to consider history, not political science, as my field of study. I was skeptical, but she was persistent and eventually persuaded me to take a course in historiography taught by her husband, Clarke Garrett, professor emeritus of history. I never enjoyed a class so much as his History 190. That course taught me how to study, interpret and write history—which remains one of my great passions today. It introduced me to the Archives & Special Collections in the May Morris Room on the second floor of the Boyd Lee Spahr Library. And it introduced me to Martha Slotten, college archivist and special collections librarian.

Before I finished my freshman year I had a job in the May Morris Room working for Martha. It was not glorious work by any stretch. Most of my first year or so was devoted to cutting sheets of acid-free paper to fabricate covers for the books of the Isaac Norris collection, the magnificent library donated to the college by Norris' son-in-law John Dickinson shortly after the college's founding. Over time my tasks became more interesting and, thanks to Martha's guidance, my understanding and appreciation for history, historical objects and the interpretation of artifacts and manuscripts grew keener. Far more significant, I developed a friendship with Martha and Ralph that was to endure for the rest of their lives.

The May Morris Room was a home away from home for me and the entire gang of budding archivists and historians and the rest of the Slotten retinue. Martha created an environment that was welcoming, educational and inspirational.  I had many great professors at Dickinson, and enjoyed a friendship with many of them, but there was a certain hierarchy and formality to those relationships. Martha was open, happy, funny, engaging and, above all, sincerely interested in each one of us. Martha treated us like family. During our time there—Dana, Robin, Yale, Chrys and others—we were a family.

Martha's impact on those who had the privilege to work with her was profound.  I have time and space to offer but a few of the many qualities for which she should be remembered:

Her expertise in the history of Dickinson College. Martha was unquestionably the expert. She had served as research assistant to the brilliant Charles Coleman Sellers, who had written the college history for its bicentennial in 1973. Martha knew and imparted to all of us the role the college had played in educating and preparing young men and women to accomplish important-and sometimes great-things in the world. At the same time she inspired us to do the same. 

Her expertise as a historian and archivist. Martha brought the highest degree of professionalism to the college archives and commanded the respect of her colleagues and peers. Martha inspired students to follow their passion for history and archival and library science. Martha caused me to think more deeply about many things, not the least of which was the study of history. From her I learned to care for rare letters and books. I learned to collect wisely, not as an antiquarian but as a student of the subject. I learned that personal bias inevitably had an influence on an historian's work. I learned the value, and inadequacies, of primary resource materials. Martha gave me many opportunities to write essays and articles on subjects related to Dickinson history, which she wisely and politely edited, consistently refining my skills as an historian. Thirty years after I graduated she was still encouraging me to write. 

Her respect for diversity in the world. The community of my childhood was a wonderful place but not very diverse in ancestry, culture or faith. Martha opened my eyes to the world and caused me to see it in the most positive way. I did not think about it then, but Martha, the girl from a little Quaker village in Selma, Ohio, must have made the same journey I did, emerging from a very small, close community of sameness into a vast, diverse world. Martha and Ralph guided many to see more and differently, all without rejecting oneself or one's heritage.

Her tolerance. Martha held staunch views on political matters and never hesitated to make clear to others what her views were. But she never was critical or judgmental of someone who believed differently (unless they were intolerant of others). She had the capacity to maintain and advocate strong opinions on political concerns while remaining respectful of the rights of others to hold contrary views. When confronted with a difference of opinion Martha would ask, "Tell me why you think that?" not "I think you are wrong!" 

Her smile and laugh. Martha was a happy person. Even in difficult times she knew the importance of maintaining a sense of humor. She had a big smile and a wonderful laugh. One need only look at a photo of Martha to get a sense of the joy in her being. 

Her insight into those with whom she came in contact. Martha knew and understood people, often better than they knew themselves. It was because she listened and observed. You could be open with Martha because she cared about you. You knew you could trust her. Those of us who worked with Martha sought her advice on all manner of things.  Because she listened to us more than we listened to ourselves, her guidance was invaluable. 

 "A true friend unbosoms freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously and continues a Friend unchangeably," wrote William Penn.  

By any measure Martha Calvert Slotten was a true friend. 

Published January 14, 2014