Finding New Correspondence

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The Center began collecting the correspondence of John Dewey in 1990 after completing the Collected Works. The four volumes of The Correspondence of John Dewey, which include letters by, to, and about Dewey, make details of his life available to scholars. 

When the Dewey Center staff began the project, Dewey letters were scattered across the country and around the world. It took quite a bit of research, letter writing, phone calls, and combing through archives to gather them in one place. As of November 2008 the Center has collected photocopies of over 22,000 letters and we continue to find more.

In January 2008, while going through old files, staff members found 1986 correspondence from a former graduate assistant to the librarian at the University of the West Indies inquiring about the existence of letters from Dewey to Eric Williams, educator and first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. At the time, the Williams papers had not been collected and processed and the assistant was unable to obtain any copies.

Upon discovering this inquiry, staff members once again contacted the librarian at the University of the West Indies, who directed the Dewey staff to Lorraine Nero of the university and eventually to Williams’s daughter Erica Connell. After a few e-mail exchanges we collected thirteen new Dewey letters as well as a fictional piece written by Williams which included references to Dewey.  In exchange we sent the University of the West Indies six letters written by, to, or about Williams.

Another great discovery was a handwritten Dewey letter found on the Internet. While looking for photographs of Dewey on the Web site of Hubbards (Nova Scotia) Area Heritage Collection, staff members noticed a document with Dewey’s unmistakable handwriting. It turned out to be a letter from Dewey to Amy Morris Lillie in which he enclosed $350 for the purchase of a cabin. Finding this letter led to six more from Hubbards.

More often we locate new letters when they are mentioned in published articles. Any references to Dewey's correspondence are checked against The Correspondence of John Dewey database.  If the letter has not been included in the database, a search is made to find the location of the original document.  Locating the letter in a collection is a matter of contacting the institution and asking for a copy and permission to publish, and people are always happy to oblige. Occasionally letters have not been deposited and are in the hands of the author or the author’s heirs. In these cases, we attempt to contact the holder directly. Again, people are typically happy to provide us with a copy of the letter and any others they might have.

Once the letters are in our possession, we photocopy, transcribe, proofread, and save them in FolioViews. The Center has published four volumes of Dewey correspondence to date. As we locate new letters, we add them to new editions of these volumes.