Top of page

It’s Never too Late to be an Ethnomusicologist: A Conversation with AFC Intern Kirk Sullivan, Part II

Share this post:

Kirk Sullivan holding a cylinder over an open drawer full of cylinders in boxes
A wax cylinder that has been safely rehoused in its new acid-free box. A foam core and insert at the bottom provide shock absorption for the cylinder. Photo by Ann Hoog, July 2014.

This is a guest post by Folklife Specialist Ann Hoog, who coordinates AFC’s internship program.

This is the second in a two-part series stemming from a conversation with one of our summer interns, Kirk Sullivan. Part I was about how he went from having an established career in software engineering to becoming a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology. Today, read about a project Kirk is working on with the wax cylinder collections in one of the deepest depths of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building.

Part 2: 10,000 Cylinders

Ann: Tell me about your interest in the wax cylinder collections.

Kirk:  I was in the same ethnomusicology class that I did that Polynesian paper for — it was a transcription class — and I was transcribing all these Polynesian songs for class. One of the things we read was this 1891 paper transcribing Zuni Indian song from some of the earliest cylinder usage in the field. It was Jesse Fewkes recordings. He had tested the cylinders out in Maine, and then he carried them to New Mexico and recorded the Zunis. Here are these nine songs in a paper in 1891, and I thought it would just be the responsible thing to do to at least Google them and pull up the songs and listen to them, just to compare them to the transcriptions I was looking at. Then I’m sure it was my professor, Dr. Rob Provine, that said, “Well, they’re probably at the Library of Congress, and so you probably have to go there and listen to them.” So he had then hooked me, and I came here to listen to them. I couldn’t find those particular tunes, or songs, I had seen in the transcription. I ended up writing to the Peabody Museum a bunch of letters, and it’s become a bit of quest, you know. It’s the Amelia Earhart kind of thing that bugs me. Hopefully, they can at least be identified one day, if not listened to. So that was how I got interested in cylinders and exposed to the Federal Cylinder Project.

A: Why were you interested in doing an internship at the American Folklife Center, as opposed to somewhere else? Was it because of your interest in the Federal Cylinder Project?

K: Trying to balance a little bit, practical with passion, I suppose. I was thinking a PhD could lead to a teaching or research job, and obviously the cylinder side of things fits into the research part of that. It is good exposure for a teacher to have, but then I was also thinking, well, teaching jobs, I just hear horror stories about, trying to get teaching jobs, so working  in a museum or a library would be a another possibility. So it just seemed like for all those reasons, you know, built-in interest, good secondary area to have, good possibility for hopefully having this ethnomusicology, crazy, path being able to pay some small bills in the end.

close up of drawer full of cylinder boxes and lids
A drawer of rehoused cylinders. The original lids are kept in order to preserve the written information on them, often identifying what was recorded onto the cylinder. Photo by Ann Hoog, July 2014.

A: Interesting to think about, where those careers are, and that it is more than teaching.

K: Right, and I don’t know all where they are. I get the sense that some ethnomusicologists are pretty creative about what they do with their degree. That part of the plan has not quite clarified in my mind’s eye just yet. It really didn’t occur to me until the other day that the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Hawai’i would be a possibility where I could look for summer things, or who knows what. And at this point, this internship might be a good experience to bring to the table for that kind of possibility.

A:  While you’ve been working with the cylinders, labeling, and rehousing them, have you reflected on that experience?

K: I’ve tried not to. I heard there are close to 10,000 cylinders and I’m sure Marcia [Segal] was being supportive and encouraging at the time saying, “You’ve made it through 200,” and I’m thinking, “Great! How many are there?” “10,000.” That’s a little daunting, so I try not to think about that too much.

A: Yes, you have to think about things in small chunks.

K: You really do. Even just labeling is an interesting process, because I have this sense of the problem that can be caused if things get labeled wrong. You can cause problems for a long time. A friend of mine used to say, “All you have to do is take a book in the library and put it back in the wrong place and you’ve essentially discarded that book.” And you know, I sort of think of that in terms of the labeling.  It’s mundane, yeah, but it sort of takes this weird concentration — as I said to Marcia, to do the same thing over and over again, 10,000 times, without making a mistake. So it’s a different kind of concentration and thinking. You can’t do it in your sleep, strangely.

A: Is there any part of this internship that you didn’t expect to be doing?

K: I didn’t know when I started labeling that you were working on a rehousing project, or I didn’t get it. And then I’ve sort of realized that I’m in the middle of this rehousing effort, which actually means touching cylinders and putting them in new boxes, and so I didn’t have any expectations of touching cylinders. Seeing them, I suppose that didn’t surprise me too much, but the ones that I particularly am interested in, I sort of expected were already archived remotely and was surprised to find out that they are right there, as well. It’s all right there [laughing].

A: Right, so you study something, you read about it, write about it, then you have this experience where you get to touch something, to have a tactile experience.

cylinder boxes with labels
The final product … rehoused and fully labeled cylinders with bar codes, collection titles, and call numbers. Photo by Ann Hoog, July 2014.

K: The tactile experience that comes right to my mind is the sort of the fragility of some of them. I went through a collection of 200 and they were all wonderful and well-behaved, and then this last collection of 120 where some of them are shattered and some of them are cracked, and it’s really unnerving. I don’t want the crack to increase to breakage on my watch. Oh, and even just the flakes that end up, you know, some of them are fine, but some are ready to crumble. The first one I saw, it was sitting there perfectly, and you can see the cracks in it. I rushed that over to Judith [Gray] and she gets the gloves out and demonstrates what ends up transferring pieces to the new box. So, yes, I’ve had to repeat that process myself, but the thought of making it worse is not very appealing, and with some of these, there’s just precious little you can do to not make it worse.

In Volume I of the Federal Cylinder Project, I read there are different formulas that the different manufacturers used to make the cylinder hard enough to survive and soft enough to carve. Castor oil –and I can’t remember all the ingredients — but they all had their softening agents, which then separate over a hundred years and leave the thing brittle. It’s organic in that sense, fragile, and each of them fragile in different ways. Some are more robust, some of them are just pristine, and others of them just want to fall apart. So I do them a little at a time.

Lots of aspects of the internship fit into my life. I’ve done genealogy research since I was a kid, so there is something about this legacy that piques my interest. Cylinders probably fit into that. It’s something old, you get an insight into a past you can’t otherwise see or hear. So there are a lot of aspects like that that I find appealing. It’s hard, much of ethnomusicology today is focused on what is happening today, and current, living music cultures where you can interview people, you know, but there are some people that do historical ethnomusicology and music cultures that are no longer around or left only remnants. So it’s pretty easy for me to be drawn into the historical side of things. I’ll have to find some balance of things.

A: Thanks very much Kirk, I appreciate your taking time to talk about your roads into ethnomusicology. We’ve very much enjoyed having you intern with us this summer and we wish you all the best in the next phase of your new career.

K: Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity to work in the American Folklife Center.

The American Folklife Center has available at all times of the year a limited number of volunteer internships through which individuals may work with the collections in the Center’s archive and assist with the Center’s concerts, lectures, and symposia. Interns who are students may arrange with their institutions to obtain academic credit.


  1. I’ve read that these cylinders are being digitized so that the sounds won’t be lost. Even the damaged ones can be restored digitally. With modern recording technology it would seem the music could be available for musicologists without putting the actual discs at risk. Is such a program taking place? How does one access the digital transcriptions?

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.