Mary Dana Marks sailing in New York harbor.

As a college student at the University of Illinois during the tumultuous, idealistic 1960s, I believed that with imagination and hard work, I could change the world.  In 1964, when I carried that belief to my Peace Corps assignment as an English teacher in Iran, the realities an unfamiliar culture presents almost buried me.  Reflecting on that time, I understand how pivotal the experience was.  It shaped my views of the world and my own culture, and defined the course my life would take with my family and my career.

Mary Dana Marks in garden of teachers' training school, Kerman, Iran

Chance and inclination propelled me to a career in specialized libraries, where I was able to be both librarian and editor. When I returned to Iran after graduate school in library science at the University of Michigan, I compiled and edited the quarterly journal Literacy Documentation while running the library of the International Center for Adult Literacy Methods, a UNESCO-affiliated organization.  Back in Ann Arbor in 1974, I worked for the Program for Educational Opportunity, an organization that promoted desegregation in the public schools, managing its information center. There, I edited the proceedings of conferences it held across the state of Michigan on the contentious issues posed by court-mandated desegregation in the north. 

Cover of Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia

Moving to New York, I became the library director for the Huntington Free Library and Reading Room, which held the 40,000 volume book and manuscript collection of the Museum of the American Indian. Hurling myself again into a matrix of cultures that were not my own, preserving and promoting the Indian collection became my mission.  Grant proposals flew out of my office as quickly as I could write them. I also edited Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia*. In 1995 this singular compilation won the prestigious Denali Press Award given by the American Library Association. The award “recognize[d] achievement in creating reference works, outstanding in quality and significance, that provide information specifically about ethnic and minority groups in the United States.” (*Edited under the name Mary B. Davis)

Assanoose (Sauk). Image from Vanishing Worlds, Enduring People, Cornell University Libraries.

More recently, I curated “Vanished Worlds, Enduring Peoples,” an exhibition of the Cornell University Libraries’ Native American collection. The exhibition can be viewed online.

While working on my memoir,Walled In, Walled Out: A Young American Woman in Iran, I had the good fortune to attend a reunion of Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Iran. We created a new organization, the Peace Corps Iran Association. I served on its founding board, editing its newsletter, KhabarNameh, for four years. The newsletter circulates to more than 1000 volunteers, their families, and Peace Corps/Iran staff members.

These days I live in upper Manhattan with my husband Richard, my partner for almost forty years. From our ninth floor window I see the Hudson River and the lush green of the New Jersey palisades —a realization, almost, of my vow while residing in the arid, brown Iranian desert: “When I get home,” I wrote to my parents, “I’m going to live in a tree in the middle of an island.”