Features

Brown’s ‘unofficial historian’ remembered by faculty and staff

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When asked to describe Martha Mitchell, former University archivist, those who knew her pause for a few moments as they choose the words to best represent her. When they do begin to speak, it is with a hint of awe that they share their memories of this “extraordinary,” “very witty” and “generous” person.

Mitchell, who passed away on Dec. 14, 2011, worked on and off for the University for more than 50 years before retiring in August 2003. But Mitchell was much more than just an archivist — she became the University’s unofficial historian when she wrote the Encyclopedia Brunoniana, a text that continues to serve as a key resource on all things Brown.

The encyclopedia — now also available in the updated online version — chronicles the University’s history and culture in hundreds of articles on such varied topics as Asians, botany and Henry Wriston.  

A lifetime with Brown

Mitchell’s affiliation with the University began long before she stepped foot inside the John Hay Library. Her father would take her to Brown football games when she was a child. These early experiences with Brown athletics likely contributed to her affinity for the University and later influenced her work in the archives, said Gayle Lynch, senior library specialist.

Mitchell returned to the University in the late 1940s, after taking a job at the Hay following her graduation from Tufts University.

A few years later, Mitchell left the University to attend the Library School at McGill University. After earning her degree, she returned to College Hill to be the Pembroke College librarian. She took another hiatus to start a family but returned to the Hay in 1967 and remained there for the next 36 years.

“People tend not to come to a university when they’re young and stay for a long time,” said University Curator Robert Emlen, a frequent collaborator with Mitchell. Today, members of the Hay’s staff still use the finding aids and programs that Mitchell designed, said Gayle Lynch, senior library specialist.

A lasting legacy

Lynch first met Mitchell in 1972 and remembers her as both a talented archivist and an inspirational boss.

“She made this job very interesting,” Lynch said. “You wanted to come into work every day.”

Lynch also recounted Mitchell’s incredible memory. Though she did not always remember the name of everyone she met, she remembered exactly what they had been wearing ­­— from head to toe — the first time they walked into the archives, Lynch said.

Emlen also said Mitchell had “an astonishing mind” and “a photographic memory” that contributed to her historical prowess.  He recalled coming into the archives one day in search of a citation for an old photocopy of a story from a Pembroke College publication. The article had no date or source listed, but Mitchell was able to deduce the source from the design of the article. She found the date by remembering when the story was published and immediately gave him the citation. For good measure, she looked up the publication in the archives and found it exactly where she thought it would be.

Though her memory was extraordinary, Emlen said he believes Mitchell’s factual knowledge of Brown’s history is just a small part of what will be missed.

“She understood very clearly, profoundly, how important the culture is at Brown and how we understand the culture through its history,” he said.

In addition to writing the most comprehensive collection of information on the University in the form of the Encyclopedia Brunoniana, Mitchell also published a history book — “A Tale of Two Centuries: A Warm and Rich Pictorial History of Brown University.”

Professor of English Elizabeth Taylor, co-director of the nonfiction writing program, began working with Mitchell in the late 1990s.

“Pretty much only Martha knew where everything was because she had organized it,” she said. Taylor called her archive organization and the Encyclopedia Brunoniana “phenomenal gifts to Brown.”

Taylor also recalled Mitchell’s remarkable voice and her ability to go from “story to story,” in an entertaining way.  “She was a super source, a great storyteller, very funny … she would enthrall us with her numerous memories,” Taylor said.

A “caretaker” of history

Throughout her tenure at Brown, Mitchell ensured that she passed down as much knowledge as possible. Both Raymond Butti, library associate specialist, and Lynch refer to Mitchell as a mentor.

Butti also credits her with inspiring him to take time off work to pursue a Library degree, much like she had.

 “She was generous in her knowledge,” Butti said. “I’ve tried to guide the archives according to her vision.”

There is no doubt that Mitchell was treasured by the University and many of the people here. “With her death, we lost a source that was very valuable,” Taylor said.

“She was a caretaker of Brown’s history,” Lynch said. “I wish we had more time to tap the source.”