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AFC Director Betsy Peterson Has Retired After 10 Years

Three people stand in a small group, with one of them holding up an object for others to see.

Betsy Peterson and her family at her retirement celebration, April 2022. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

The American Folklife Center is bidding a fond farewell to Elizabeth “Betsy” Peterson, who has retired from the position of Director after ten years in that role.  Her leadership engaged all facets of the Center’s activity–from stewardship of the collections to expansion of public programming and outreach–and she routinely anchored that leadership in an ethos of collaboration and collegiality.

Her achievements as Director are numerous, impressive, and will continue to shape the work of AFC in the coming years. Under her direction and encouragement, the Center accelerated the digitization of collections for preservation but also, and importantly, for online access. She put particular emphasis on the AFC “field survey” project collections in this regard, and also championed online access for the Occupational Folklife Collections generated by the Archie Green Fellowships. These materials represent some of the most significant collection efforts supported by or undertaken by the American Folklife Center, and when she began her term as Director both collection clusters were largely unavailable online (or fully cataloged). Today, these materials  have a significant online presence and see use by a broad audience.

Betsy helped guide staff in significantly revising the Collection Development Policy for AFC in order to reflect current and future folklife field research practices, ideas and areas of interest. Parallel to this work, she also directed staff to expand and diversify collections to include more audio visual media and expand areas of documentation.  Additionally, Betsy was instrumental in securing several significant acquisitions, including: the  AIDS Memorial Quilt records; the Kitchen Sisters collection; the Candacy Taylor ‘Route 66’ project collection; and the Martin Koenig collection.

Collection development work is not limited to bringing materials into the Library, but also involves the ethical aspects of stewardship—and Betsy was always attentive to this facet of the work. She oversaw efforts to digitize AFC’s significant Native American collections, with increased engagement involving tribal partnerships and other governmental organizations.  These efforts build on AFC’s long legacy of stewardship of Native American collections through the Federal Cylinder Project and continue AFC’s leadership within the Library around key issues of intellectual property, rights of cultural communities represented in collections, and a turn toward collaborative curation of collections.

Enhancing the role for communities in collections development via self-representation was a major motivation for a significant project that Betsy helped launch: the Community Collections Grant program.  A component in the Of the People initiative at the Library of Congress supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the grant program provides funding and other support to communities to conduct their own cultural documentation projects. This multi year  grant program will generate up to 30 ethnographic collections produced by communities, enhancing the AFC holdings in a number of ways while enabling communities to represent themselves in the archive.

With regards to the public programs, outreach, and communications side of AFC, Betsy always supported the dynamic work done by staff. She oversaw the publication of a new edition of our fieldwork guide, Folklife and Fieldwork, and the creation of this very blog as well as the podcast Folklife Today, as well as the podcast America Works. She spearheaded an impressive number of programs and publications marking the 40th anniversary of AFC in 2016.


Two people pose with a check in front of a library bookshelf.

Betsy Peterson and Peter Bartis holding the check for the initial gift establishing the AFC paid internship program! Photo courtesy of Michelle Stefano (2017).

A program that is especially important to Betsy is the AFC Folklife Internship, a paid summer experience  designed to provide experiences in archival practice, cultural heritage research, and programming, while building participants’ knowledge about ethnographic materials. Betsy worked closely with the late Peter Bartis–a former staff member at the Center– to shape the AFC’s first paid internship program, which he funded through a generous gift upon his retirement. Since it launched in 2018, the program has supported six interns, offering training and mentorship to the next generation of cultural workers.

Much of the work detailed above represents discrete initiatives or high visibility projects, but Betsy invested significant effort into backstage work, too. She focused on the rebuilding and, in some cases, reshaping of the Center’s infrastructure, after several years of staff attrition (from retirements and other) and broad federal budget cuts.  From the start, she prioritized rebuilding the archives infrastructure through the bureaucratic work of updating, upgrading and standardizing many job descriptions; revamping some of the work processes and encouraging a more collaborative work culture; and encouraging the diversification of work skills.

At the Veterans History Project Betsy worked closely with two directors, Bob Patrick and Karen Lloyd, and oversaw  the hiring of the current director, Monica Mohindra. She also sought to establish close alignment of the work of VHP within the AFC, largely through an Library-approved reorganization that is still in its early phases. Finally, across the decade of her time at the Center she oversaw a major increase in the number of staff, bringing on Nicole Saylor as Head of Archives (and later Director of Archives) and John Fenn as Head of Programs and Research and more than doubling the number of people working to support the Center’s mission!

Everything offered above represents only a sliver of Betsy’s legacy at the Center. All staff are grateful to her for ensuring that we are on solid footing upon her retirement, despite the ongoing pandemic, a physical relocation of our reading room and administrative offices, and any number of other disruptions! Let’s all take a moment to thank Betsy, and say goodbye with a song from the Archive, “Adios Adios,” recorded from Lottie Espinosa by Sidney Robertson Cowell.


Homegrown Plus Premiere: Ukrainian American Bandura Master Julian Kytasty

We’re continuing the Homegrown Plus Premiere series with Julian Kytasty, a third generation player of the bandura, a Ukrainian stringed instrument with similarities to the lute and the zither. Julian also sings beautifully and composes for the bandura and other instruments. In this blog you’ll find an embedded concert video, an interview video, and a set of related links to explore!

AFC Welcomes a New Director of Archives!

Please join the American Folklife Center in welcoming our new Director of Archives, Michael Pahn! He’s only just started with us in this position—his official first day was May 9—but has a long relationship with the Center, going all the way back to an internship he held in the 1990s! He’s also worked with many AFC staff over the years in his capacity as Head of Archives and Digitization at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), the position he held prior to joining the Library of Congress.

Caught My Eye: Working the Port of Houston Collection

As shipping delays persist, even if Ever Given and Ever Forward are both free to forge on, I am reminded of the AFC’s Working the Port of Houston Collection, and the insights it offers into the global shipping industry from the perspective of one of the world’s busiest ports. Focused on the history and importance […]

Homegrown Plus: Traditional Dance from American Samoa

We’re continuing the Homegrown Plus series with a very special presentation of Samoan dance. In addition to the dance video, the blog features an interview with Eti Eti, one of the members of the dance group. The dance video was created by the Student Association For Fa’asamoa, a program of the Samoan Studies Institute at American Samoa Community College. The Samoan Studies Institute’s mission is to ensure and promote the continuity of Samoan culture, traditions, language, and heritage. Since its inception, SAFF has been active in performing the Siva Samoa (traditional Samoan dance), and in teaching and practicing old Samoan customs. For their Homegrown video, the SAFF dancers performed a 30-minute program of traditional dances in several locales at the college, under the direction of Molitogi Lemana. See the video right here in the blog!

ETL: Searching the Lomax family papers through the magic of crowdsourcing

“ETL” is a wonderful acronym, a non-word, a nickname for a phrase by which insiders describe a complex process. ETL in the context of digital collections at the Library of Congress is short for “extract, transform, and load.” To a curator working with crowdsourced archival material. “ETL” in an email subject line signals the final step in a process by which an archival collection becomes full-text searchable, the gold standard for access to manuscript materials. In this post we look at the ways in which crowdsourced transcriptions add depth to our understanding of our rich fieldwork collections. We look at a variety of materials, including Alan Lomax’s trips to collect traditional songs and music in Florida and Haiti. We show how Zora Neale Hurston’s fieldwork informed her brilliant novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” providing excerpts from fieldnotes that comport with descriptions in the novel.

More About “Hal An Tow”: Early Evidence of a May Song.

In this post we examine some of the earliest evidence of the Cornish May Song, also known as “Hal An Tow.” A version of this song was recorded from Lillian Short in Missouri by Vance Randolph in 1941. By that time, the melody to the song had changed in oral tradition, but this early evidence, a written transcription by Edward Jones from 1802, shows that the song was formerly sung to the same melody retained by Lillian Short. The post includes Jones’s 1802 passage describing the May 8 observances in Helston, Cornwall, which include the “Hal An Tow” song, the “Furry Dance” or “Flora Dance,” and other events; the sheet music as he published it; and a discussion of Jones’s interpretations of the Helston song in relation to AFC’s field recording.

Homegrown Plus Premiere: ‘Ukulele Master Herb Ohta, Jr.

We’re continuing the Homegrown Plus Premiere series with international recording artist Herb Ohta, Jr., who is one of today’s most prolific ʻukulele masters. In this blog you’ll find an embedded concert video, an interview video, and a set of related links to explore! We’re very excited to present Herb Ohta, Jr. in the series. Influenced by jazz, R&B, Latin and Brazilian music, as well as traditional Hawaiian sounds, he puts his stamp on Hawaiian music by pushing the limits of tone and technique on this beautiful instrument. The son of ʻukulele legend “Ohta-san,” he started playing at the age of three, and began teaching at the age of nine. Based in Honolulu, he shares the music of Hawaiʻi and the beauty of the ʻukulele with people around the world, performing concerts and conducting instructional workshops. As a special treat, Herb asked his good friend Jake Shimabukuro to join him for a medley of traditional Hawaiian songs. Shimabukuro, also a Honolulu native, is one of the most highly acclaimed ʻukulele players in the world, and has collaborated with many great musicians, including Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Loggins, and Amy Mills. He’s never forgotten his roots in Hawaiian music, though, and was kind enough to join Herb in his Homegrown concert.

Homegrown Plus: Vri: Chamber Folk From Wales

We’re continuing the Homegrown Plus series with Vrï, a trio from Wales in the U.K., whose members describe their music as ‘chamber-folk.’ The idea of the series is to gather concert videos, video interviews with the musicians, and connections to Library of Congress collections together in one place for our subscribers…so here we go!

Bringing together the experience of Jordan Price Williams (cello, voice) Patrick Rimes (violin, viola, foot percussion, voice) and Aneirin Jones (violin, voice) Vrï plays tunes and songs from the Celtic nations and beyond, attempting to combine the energy of a rowdy pub session with the style and finesse of the Viennese string quartet. They combine high-energy dance music and stately traditional melodies with delicate arrangements, and sing in both Welsh and English.