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A Q&A with new staff folklorist-archivist Kelly Revak

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New AFC Processing Archivist Kelly Revak
New AFC Processing Archivist Kelly Revak

Kelly Revak is a new processing archivist at the American Folklife Center. She has a master’s degree in folklore and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. Cumulatively, she has 20 years of experience in archives, including 7 years in various capacities at the Berkeley Folklore Archive. Since starting her job in August, Kelly has been tasked with a number of projects ranging from increasing access to AFC’s Native American recordings to transforming legacy data from donors to create collection finding aids.

Q: Can you start by talking a bit about your background in archives and folklore?

My two favorite subjects! I got my start in both at UC Berkeley during my undergraduate studies in Anthropology. My freshman year I took Forms of Folklore with Alan Dundes and found myself fascinated with the subject, and with an instant mentor. This quickly led to an internship at the Berkeley Folklore Archive which I continued for the next 3 years. The categorization aspect of archival work really appealed to me, and I got particularly interested in genre theory in folkloristics.  After  graduating, I continued on into the Masters in Folklore program, continuing to work at the Berkeley Folklore Archive, eventually becoming Head Archivist. When discussing with Dundes potential career paths with a Folklore degree, he noted my cumulative 7 years of work in the Archive, and informed me, “you’re obviously an archivist!”

In the decade since, I’ve worked in archives almost continuously, most often as a “lone arranger” or sole archivist at an organization. This led me to develop problem-solving techniques and diverse capabilities that I am now thrilled to put to use at the American Folklife Center. Though I’ve worked before with collections of cultural or anthropological nature, being here at AFC really is my dream job – to work with one of the largest ethnographic collections in the country.

Q: You are part of the Ancestral Voices project team, along with Judith Gray, Guha Shankar, and Margaret Kruesi. What are the aims of this project and your role in it?

The Ancestral Voices  project is a collaboration with communities of origin initiating a new paradigm of classification, curation and methods of access for indigenous materials. The primary goal is to increase access to the rich Native American collections held at AFC and provide culturally responsive care and use of these materials. We’re doing this by combining emerging digital technologies to salvage obsolete and fragile legacy recordings with innovative approaches to co-curation and intellectual access for the benefit of both archival repositories and source communities.

Cultural anthropologists Kim Christen Withey  and Jane Anderson with  Mukurtu have created something called Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels, which allow indigenous communities to add contexts to cultural artifacts, many of which are stored in cultural institutions. The labels are modeled after Creative Commons licenses. They serve as a social intervention, not a legal intervention.

As a pilot project for Ancestral Voices, AFC has partnered with Mukurtu to work with the Passamaquoddy tribe in the northeastern part of the United States. AFC holds historic Passamaquoddy  recordings, made in 1890 by Jesse Walter Fewkes on wax cylinder, which contain the earliest known ethnographic field recordings in the world. We are enabling Passamaquoddy community members  to develop attribution labels and embed other aspects of community cultural knowledge in the metadata for the recordings, both for use in their own environment as well as in the Library’s public-facing web portals. In doing so,  this effort aims to reposition communities as authorities over their cultural histories and heritage.

My role in this project has been to do the initial cataloging of the recordings, in preparation for incorporation of the cultural knowledge from the  indigenous knowledge keepers. In doing so, I’ve extensively researched the recordings, and shared any information and resources I’ve found with the Passamaquoddy representatives. I am hopeful this will serve as a model for how we will work with other tribal communities in the future to make these materials more accessible and meaningful to the communities documented.

Q: What has been your favorite collection discovery so far?

My work with Jesse Walter Fewkes’ Passamaquoddy recordings led me to start listening through some of Fewkes’ other “miscellaneous” recordings. We hold a collection of his early experimental recordings with the phonograph, where he is testing the capabilities of the technology. Since he wasn’t so concerned with the content, the variety of what shows up on those recordings is wide.  From simple tones and hummed notes, to silly conversations, and flubbed “voicemails.” These wax cylinders, never cataloged and all but unknown, contain a number of items that have piqued my folkloric interest. Of particular note, I’m convinced that one of these cylinders contains the oldest audio recording of a joke! (I hope to do a full blog on this soon!)

Q: You are often tasked with “data bossing” or “data wrangling” work. Can you explain what that is and how it aids in scaling access to AFC’s collections?

Dealing with legacy data, often in digital formats that are in danger of obsolescence or even hand-written paper-based information, is not just common in archives. It is a fact of life. In these cases often the data itself is good, it is just not in a (currently) useable format. I enjoy the challenge of maneuvering this “old” data into modern, more flexible, formats. For example, one of my first projects at AFC was to convert an older version of the Quilt Alliance finding aid of over 1200 oral history interviews from the purely textual format of Word documents into fielded data in an excel spreadsheet, and from there into structured data of XML. This process allowed me to change the organization of the information from fixed inventory lists by material type (audio recordings, documents, pictures, etc), into a more user-friendly format where the information is grouped conceptually by the interview. These days I’m learning to take this a step farther, working directly with XML transformations to fluidly restructure data for use in variety of relational databases. With the quickly changing landscape of information technology, the ability to transform data from one structure to another for different uses is becoming increasingly vital. I also find it extremely satisfying. To take information that is locked in an essentially unusable format, and make it accessible to the world feels great. It means all the hundreds of hours of work that went into these old inventories and container lists and catalog cards does not need to be repeated again and again as technology changes, and we can get so much more value from the good work of our archival predecessors. In the same way, I try to leave any data that I create in a state that can be easily manipulated by whomever works with it after me. This kind of work will let AFC more quickly get information about our collections out of “landlocked” paper inventories that must be accessed on site, and out into the great sea of information online.

Q: What upcoming projects are you excited about?

I never lost my interest in genre theory and classification that initially attracted me to both Folklore and Archival work. I’m excited to be starting work on the American Folklore Society Ethnographic Thesaurus (AFSET), a project I’ve been following since it was in its earliest stages. There had been a gap for a long time for controlled vocabularies related to ethnographic collections, which the Ethnographic Thesaurus aims to fill. A controlled vocabulary is an organized set of terms, usually for a particular discipline or domain, used for consistency in description and search and access across collections.  Miscategorization and misclassification, particularly of folklore genres, has always been a pet peeve of mine.  It is such a privilege to have an opportunity to work on a tool to facilitate accuracy in classification, which will benefit both researchers and institutions across the country.

Altogether, I am incredibly excited and inspired by the projects going on at AFC, and I’m finding the work both challenging and rewarding. It was sort of a leap of faith to move across the country for this job, but in just a few months its become clear to me that I am exactly where I’m meant to be!

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