Bright Young Librarians: Dorothy Berry

Brian Graney

Dorothy Berry with actor Danny Glover.

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Dorothy Berry, Digital Collections Program Manager at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

What is your role at your institution?

​I am the inaugural Digital Collections Program Manager at Houghton Library. My work involves managing digitization workflows for patron-driven requests and for curated projects, as well as facilitating cross-campus work on digital discovery, display, and scholarship. This fiscal year my work is focusing on a project I proposed over the summer, "Slavery, Abolition, Emancipation, and Freedom: Primary Sources from Houghton Library." This project is designed to address our historical lack of digital representation from our rich collections relating to the African American freedom struggle.

How did you get started in archives?

My first library job was in undergrad, as a circulation assistant at the Mills College Library. I was studying music performance and loved working in the stacks with Mills' amazing collection of 20th and 21st century music. I even loved dealing with all the Cage transparencies and maneuvering giant Stockhausen scores! I thought, at that time, that I'd like to be a music librarian, but realized my interest in history and culture might be better served working with primary source documents.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

Those combined interests led me to the dual masters program at Indiana University, where I was able to pursue my MA in Ethnomusicology and MLS at the same time. It seems a bit bonkers to me in retrospect, but I'm really glad I had to chance to study simultaneously, as I feel it has had a direct effect on how I view the archival subjects I interact with through my work.

Favorite rare book / ephemera / archival collection that you've handled?

I'm generally not one for favorites, so this is a difficult one for me. A collection that continues to bring me joy is the YWCA USO collection held in the Social Welfare History Archives at University of Minnesota. I was working at Minnesota on a grant funded project to identify, describe, and digitize African American materials across the Special Collections department and was brought a box full of photos -- candids and posed -- from USOs ranging from World War II through the Vietnam War. Many of the photos were of celebrations or special events and seeing the snapshots of family and experience amid war and segregation was fascinating.

What do you personally collect?

I've moved around quite a bit so I've always been a bit wary of collecting. I do like to have things with my that remind me of my research interests or connect me with the past. I have three framed items that come with me to every new apartment; the lithograph of the burning of the Colored Orphans Asylum from Harper's Weekly (1863), sheet music for Bert Williams' signature song "Nobody" (1905), and a copy of "Evah Dahkey is a King" from In Dahomey, published as a music supplement of The New York American And Journal (1902). My graduate MA research was on African American Musical Theater in the 1890s through 1910s, and having physical copies of material I was only able to access digitally is a nice feeling.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I'm very much a homebody, not at all surprising of someone in our field! I love to embroider, and usually have a project I'm working on. I am also in the slow, slow, process of improving my skill at Byzantine chant -- something I'm sure I will never be at all expert at, but I do enjoy the process!

What excites you about archives?

I am continuously excited by the interpretative possibilities provided by increased access. The past is always somewhat opaque, and our understandings constantly shift with new context and reflections. I love the extent to which I see colleagues adopting concepts of cultural humility and openness, inviting new patrons and researchers to reinterpret and reimagine the past.

Thoughts on the future of archives and archivists?

The future of archives and archivists is truly a mystery to me. One thing I do foresee, if I'm going to prognosticate, is increased involvement across disciplines. Archivists have distinct experiential and professional knowledge to share, and the more we participate as active research community members and not just facilitators the more innovation we can expect. I think we are all a bit tired of hearing some academics talk about "the archives" and ignoring the physical realities of our field, but I think a solution there is joining in the conversation and troubling the notions that erase practical histories of collecting, storage, description, etc. There are great debates and discussions waiting for us if we'd just jump in! 

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?

Houghton Library feels fairly unknowable -- the amount of interesting collections is enormous and ever-growing! Lately, I've been working with our large pamphlet collecting detailing the public discourse around slavery, abolition, racial formation, and Black citizenship. These materials were collected by Harvard Library within a few years of publication, generally, and represent a type of contemporaneous collecting that we associate today with archives. The thousands of pamphlets argue from all directions -- pro-slavery, anti-slavery, slavery as enshrined by the Bible, slavery as anathema to Christ -- I've even come across a pro-miscegenation pamphlet. We are working to make sure the pamphlets are all cataloged properly to prepare them for digitization, and I'm really excited for the future research opportunities this opens up.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Of course, like everyone else, we are placing the safety of the community first and so our reading room and exhibits are currently closed, not to mention, Houghton is in the process of finishing up a major renovation! I recommend folks follow Houghton's renovation progress for more news of our eventual grand reopening and the spectacular exhibit that will be a real highlight of the event.