This is a guest blog post by American Folklife Center archivist Marcia Segal.
In the business of processing a collection – from the earliest stages of unpacking and assessment, to the point when researchers can access the contents, in physical or digital form – there comes a moment when a processor becomes the advocate for a collection. It is the moment when the processor unfolds and reads a letter, or removes an object from its shipping container and looks at it from all sides, or comes across photos found between the pages of a book. In any number of ways, a processor discovers something beyond the focus of the collection. Perhaps it is ephemeral, like a photo of the collector as a child, or a handwritten note accompanying in reel-to-reel tape in the tape container. But there is always that moment of “oh!” or “whoa,” when you show your co-workers an item and say: “Look at this. You’ve got to see this.” And at that moment of sharing, you want to know more, and you want to make sure the finding aid helps researchers know what is both important and special about the collection and its contents.
Recently I finished writing the finding aid for the Jean Ritchie and George Pickow collection, which documents the lives and work of Jean Ritchie (singer, songwriter, musician, and much more) and her husband George Pickow (photographer, documentary filmmaker, and much more). You can read more about the couple, get an overview of their collection, see some photos, and hear some audio samples at this link at Folklife Today. In this post, I’ll talk about some of the unique personal materials I came across while processing the collection.
Thousands of items in the collection (manuscripts, photos, sound recordings, films, videos, and artifacts) document their business endeavors and work with colleagues. But among the materials that display the breathtaking extent of their work and influence appear these personal items, which their family generously included with the collection. Letters between Jean and George while they were courting, a note handwritten by Jean on a reminder card from Elsa Maxwell’s “Americana Party” on May 11, 1949 (“I square-danced with Clark Gable!”), Jean’s favorite dulcimer pick, made from the top of a yellow plastic margarine tub—these are all both telling and endearing. For a processor, they invite every effort to make these materials available to researchers, who can in turn do further research and make connections which they can then publish or otherwise share with their audience.
And so when I opened the copy of a scrapbook that belonged to Jean’s mother Abagail (also spelled Abigail), I found a little photo, trimmed neatly from some larger photo not with the collection. It shows a woman holding twin babies. I realized this was Abagail with her twin daughters Opal and Jewell.
Opal died of diphtheria in 1914, brief months after her first birthday. A little lock of her hair was among the locks of hair from each of her siblings, elsewhere in the collection. When I saw the photo, and understood its significance, and later found the locks of hair, it provided a glimpse of Jean’s private, inner life, both as the youngest of 14 children, and as a grown woman with a family of her own.
Jean, as well as other members of her family, were diligent about keepsakes, and her correspondence is an archivist’s dream. Most items include Jean’s handwritten note about when she sent a response to an individual or organization. She kept careful records for most of her adult life, and her diligence in caring not only for her own records but for family treasures was a sharp reminder: make sure these people, and what they loved, are remembered. The locks of hair have now been carefully treated by conservation specialist Jennifer Evers, and housed in a bound volume, and the scrapbook – from Abagail’s hands to Jean’s hands — remains with the collection.
It was my privilege to play a small role in unpacking, organizing, rehousing, and documenting the collection, kept and made available at the American Folklife Center.
The finding aid for the Jean Ritchie and George Pickow collection (AFC 2008/005) can be found at this link, or at //hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/eadafc.af016008.
Beautifully presented, Marcia! I am reminded of a favorite item I once came upon among their early field recordings: an eastern Tennessee gentleman ca. 1950-51 singing and fiddling “Bright Morning Stars Are Rising” at the same time. Beautiful!