Library Director Marlene Power and her team at Redeemer have recoded 31,000 digital documents and moved them from an unstable online platform to a new digital home as the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection. The collection contains letters, manuscripts, minutes, notebooks, artifacts, and more—all of which give testament and insight into the organizational details and accomplishments of Mason. The collection digitizes the vast majority of the Charlotte Mason Collection at the Armitt Library and Museum in Ambleside, Cumbria, UK.
Why digitize the work of Charlotte Mason? Mason (1842-1923), a teacher, gave a course of lectures on education in the winter of 1885-86 that unleashed a flurry of educational accomplishments for the next four decades—and the Armitt’s Charlotte Mason Collection contains many artifacts from those years.
At the heart of it all is a vision for education that was far ahead of its time, an approach based on a distinct view of the child and how children learn. Mason’s ideas about the personhood of the child and the need for the student to directly engage “ideas and things” continue to resonate, and even gain traction, into the twenty-first century. For teachers and parents Mason’s philosophy means extensive use of literature (not textbooks of pre-digested knowledge); hours spent each day in natural settings; development of attention and observation through picture study and nature study; and assessment and evaluation through narration (that is, retelling through spoken or written word—and other means—of what one knows on a topic).
Today, many home-schooling parents are inspired by Charlotte Mason. Increasing numbers of schools—private schools and charter schools—are established around her ideas. Many public school teachers are increasingly aware of her ideas and methods, and are incorporating her ideas in their education programs and planning. Organizations such as the Charlotte Mason Institute annually convene teachers and researchers to discuss Mason’s philosophy and practice.
Between the year of her first lecture and the year of her death, Mason wrote six volumes on education, established a parents’ educational union, a teachers’ college, a journal for parents and teachers, a network of schools, and a correspondence curriculum. Many of the related artifacts are in the CMDC and are now, because of the work of Power and her team, available on WorldCat—which means more researchers and casual browsers will come across them. An added benefit is that the CMDC documents now open easily and quickly.
The collection’s launch is great news to Charlotte Mason educators and researchers around the world. “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful,” were the first words from Australian educator, Jeanne Grant Webb, within minutes of the announcement being made via Facebook on Friday, March 18, 2016. “Exciting news that makes the Armitt archives more accessible. It brings tears to my eyes!” wrote Bonnie Buckingham, a teacher from North Carolina, a moment later. At the time of the announcement one of the original digitizers, Dr. Jack Beckman of Covenant College in Georgia, stated that he remembered the project as a “delightful time professionally and personally.”
Warm congratulations were extended from local and international faculty and scholars alike. Dr. Christina Belcher spoke positively on the increasing accessibility of the collection. University of Cumbria emeritus professor Dr. Hilary Cooper commented from Dublin, Ireland that Charlotte Mason, and her educational legacy, are now a crucial selling point of the University of Cumbria. Dr. Carroll Smith, former dean of education at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina, shared the announcement from Virginia to more than 2,000 Charlotte Mason educators worldwide.
Since its establishment through a Social Science and Humanities Research Council grant in 2009, Marlene Power has been delighted to see the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection attracting a growing number of visitors every month as well as a steady flow of email enquiries from all over North America and the UK. “There is no doubt that it plays an important role in this emerging area of scholarship and educational practice,” she said. “And we are pleased with this new user-friendly phase in the life of the collection!”
Written by Deani Van Pelt, director of the Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education, senior fellow at the think tank Cardus and former director and professor of teacher education at Redeemer