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Peter Bartis April 26, 1949-December 25, 2017

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Peter at the inception of the Rhode Island Folklife Project in 1979. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. [Full Details]
The American Folklife Center is very sad to report the death of our longtime staff member, Peter Bartis. Peter died on December 25, 2017, from cancer. He had been in hospice for several days, with his spouse Ben, his brother Jim, and several AFC staff members visiting him daily.

At the time of his retirement earlier this year, Peter was the longest-serving employee in the American Folklife Center’s history, a record that will probably go unchallenged for a long time. In many ways, Peter’s presence and diligent work has defined the Center for over 40 years. All of us at AFC, in addition to his colleagues throughout the Library, will miss him profoundly.

AFC director Betsy Peterson said:

Because Peter’s contributions are so much a part of the American Folklife Center’s history, it is difficult to imagine the AFC without his presence. He worked on the AFC field research surveys in the 70s and 80s, he wrote Folklife and Fieldwork—undoubtedly our  most popular publication—and he was actively involved in the development and growth of the Veterans History Project. The Library is a poorer place without Peter, and all of us will miss him.

Peter Bartis was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to Thomas James and Penelope (Economou) Bartis, in 1949. He grew up in a multiethnic neighborhood because, he said, his parents wanted him to be a part of the “melting pot” of diversity, which was their understanding of America in the 1950s. From his parents and family, Peter gained an appreciation for cultural diversity which remained with him all his life.

Peter received his Bachelor of Arts from Boston University in 1972. His interests in the arts and cultural history sparked a desire to look into the deeper roots of the cultural materials around him, whether they were ethnic holiday observances or Bob Dylan songs. To satisfy this curiosity, he went on for an MA degree in folklore at the University North Carolina, which he completed in in 1974. For his thesis, he studied the tradition of “hollers,” loud, often wordless musical cries which were a common part of rural American culture. Best known as one ingredient of early African American blues, hollers were also known among white farmers, and Peter’s work was an attempt to classify the documented forms of hollering. His work on the genre made him a well-known figure in the small subculture that follows hollering; he has judged hollering contests and was made an honorary citizen of Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, where one such contest is held.

After completing his Master’s degree, Peter attended courses for his PhD in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. Studying under folklorists Tristram Coffin and Kenneth S. Goldstein, he intended to continue his work on hollering. By the time he finished his PhD in 1982, however, the American Folklife Center had changed the course of his research.

Kenneth S. Goldstein (left) and Peter Bartis (right). Kenny was one of Peter’s advisors in graduate school. He went on to direct the Rhode Island Folklife Project, on which Peter was a fieldworker. Kenny also wrote the first fieldwork guide for folklorists, and was Peter’s mentor in the creation of Folklife & Fieldwork. The photo is from Peter’s personal collection.

Shortly after Peter began his PhD work, the American Folklife Center was founded. Its enabling legislation makes it clear that encouraging and studying American cultural diversity were the principal reasons for the Center’s existence. This made AFC an expression of the same values that motivated Peter to study folklore. He was quick to apply for a temporary job on AFC’s 1977 Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, which documented traditional arts in a wide range of ethnic communities in Chicago. When the project ended he applied for a permanent job at AFC, and entered on duty on June 22, 1977.

Although the American Folklife Center was founded in 1976, the archive that makes up the Center’s holdings was founded in 1928 within the Library of Congress Music Division. In 1978, the Library transferred the archive to its new home at AFC, and held a series of events commemorating the archive’s 50th anniversary. One of those events was an exhibit about the archive, jointly curated by Gerald Parsons and Peter Bartis. “From the day I first discovered the extraordinary history of the Archive charted in memoranda, reports, correspondence, sound recordings, and photographs,” Peter later wrote, “it became evident that I would redirect my dissertation research.” Peter earned his PhD in 1982 with a dissertation about the history of the American Folklife Center’s archive. It’s a crucial account of the archive’s first 50 years, and AFC keeps a copy in the Folklife Reading Room so that researchers can have easy access to Peter’s scholarship.

Peter takes a bouzouki lesson with John Georganas and family in Chicago in 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. [Full Details]
Peter remained a staff member at AFC for a little over 40 years, which makes it difficult to summarize his many accomplishments at the Center. As a fieldworker and project manager, Peter participated in several of the early field collecting projects and surveys, including the extensive field collections made in Chicago (1977) and Rhode Island (1979) (which are now online), as well as Lowell, Massachusetts (1987-1988) (which should be online soon). He prepared many resource guides and manuals for the Center, including Maritime Folklife Resources (1980), Activities of the American Folklife Center (1981), Rhode Island Folklife Resources (1983), and Folklife Resources in New Jersey (1985). He was a co-compiler of the Folklife Sourcebook in all its incarnations. The online version, co-compiled with Stephanie Hall, was a database of folklife organizations, publishers, and educational programs, and was used as a source for the current Folklore Wiki maintained by the American Folklore Society.

Perhaps Peter’s most important publication for the Center was Folklife and Fieldwork, AFC’s pioneering fieldwork manual, which originally came out in 1979. For decades, this handy small book has offered guidance to people interested in documenting folklife who don’t have advanced training in an ethnographic discipline. It was among the first publications AFC put online, and is now available in its fourth edition, which I was privileged to co-author with Peter.

Peter was also involved in the Center’s educational and training programs. He helped to conceive of the Montana Heritage Project, which worked with schools throughout the state, and compiled the Center’s first Teacher’s Guide to Folklife Resources with Paddy Bowman. Peter was also proud of having managed the Center’s equipment loan program, which made high-quality recording equipment available to many folklorists across the country in the days when recording equipment was prohibitively expensive for independent scholars.

Peter leads a workshop as part of the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project in 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. [Full Details]
In 1999-2000, Peter coordinated the Local Legacies project, in which members of Congress and their constituents submitted documentation of important cultural events in their communities. The project served as a way for AFC to ensure that it reached the whole country, to work with the offices of Congress members, and to create a snapshot of community culture near the turn of the century. It was also one of the Center’s early efforts to create an online exhibition based on one of its projects. Local Legacies gave back to the communities by Highlighting their cultural events on the Library’s website and making selected materials widely available.

In 2001, Peter became part of AFC’s most successful oral history program, the Veterans History Project, which collects firsthand narratives from wartime veterans. Peter served at VHP as a senior program officer for seven years. During that time, he worked with the offices of Congress members to raise awareness of the program, as well as with oral history associations, veterans’ groups, and universities across the country. He helped build VHP into one of the largest oral history programs in the world before returning to his position as senior folklife specialist in 2008. Peter’s longtime VHP colleague Rachel Mears recalled:

Peter was instrumental to the formation of the Veterans History Project. His experience managing the Library’s bicentennial Local Legacies project uniquely qualified him to help build VHP by creating policies that met Congress’s goals and, at the same time, fit with the Folklife Center’s collecting standards. His professionalism combined with humor and healthy irreverence also made him a very fun colleague.

In his last decade at AFC, Peter continued to be a leader on the Center’s programming team. He spearheaded our participation in Library-wide efforts such as The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America. He worked on the National Sampler Project, getting materials from across the country online. He worked particularly hard on the series of events commemorating AFC’s 40th anniversary, making them a great success. He did all these things in the spirit of contributing to what he saw as a great and important institution.

Upon his retirement from the Center, Peter continued to support AFC by making a generous gift to establish the American Folklife Center Internship Fund. In making his donation, Peter noted:

AFC has provided me with so many rich opportunities. Now I want to give back to an institution that has given me so much through the years. To do that, I decided that making some of those same learning opportunities possible for someone else was the best thing I could do.

The Internship Fund will provide educational opportunities at the AFC for emerging scholars (undergraduate and graduate) and community practitioners interested in cultural heritage materials. (For more information see The American Folklife Center Internship Fund.)

Peter Bartis will be missed by his spouse George Benjamin Zuras, his brother Jim Bartis, his sister Elizabeth Ann Goyer, and their families; by his friends and colleagues throughout the Library of Congress; and by the many folklorists, oral historians, archivists, and tradition bearers he worked with over the years. He’ll be missed particularly here at the American Folklife Center, where we have never before had to operate without his guidance, his cooperation, and his friendship. We’ll be presenting more remembrances of Peter at Folklife Today as time goes on, and we’ll do our best to build on his remarkable legacy during the Center’s next 40 years.

[Note: This blog post was updated on January 2, 2018.]

Comments (18)

  1. I am so very sorry to learn this news. The AFC will never be the same without Peter, but I know that all who served on the staff with him there will be working from now on in the light of his memory. My deepest condolences to his family, colleagues, and friends.

    –Jurretta Heckscher

  2. Thank you Stephen Winick for this wonderful,thorough, and thoroughly fascinating tribute to Peter Bartis.

  3. I knew Peter well, through so many years…sorry he is gone. This is a very nice tribute to him, and it brings back so many memories.

  4. Peter and I worked together when I served as a contracted consultant for the VHP in 2002 and 2003. He was always great to work with.

  5. Peter was a wonderful person. His kindness was indiscriminate – neighbors and associates, old and young, powerful and powerless. He shared his knowledge in a fun, caring, yet humble manner. Adventures with him were bright spots during my years in D.C. It was a privilege to know him.

    Go with love, Peter.

  6. Dear Steve,Jennifer,Thea,Jonathan, et al,

    Just received news of the passing of our friend, Peter Bartis on Christmas Day! I just e-mailed him early in Dec. He was still cautiously optimistic. Sometimes when you get a certain phone you don’t want to answer it because it may not be good news.

    Peter Bartis and I were members of a free-floating, ad hoc committee (coffee klatsch) who regularly met at 10AM and 3PM,under the eaves of the north portico (front porch!) of the Madison Bldg. Conversations were both lively and healthy outlets for the pressures of deadlines and policies of everyday life at LC.

    Peter’s great gift to us, which included super grades on down, was his easy charm and “old school” courtesy, coupled with pride of where and with whom he worked. AFC really was his passion.

    I understand the way he felt. As a post graduate student in musicology, before I secured a position in Preservation, I volunteered with the Folklife Center, under Joe Hickerson, with Gerald Parsons and Carl Fleischhauer. I first learned about AFC from a U.of Md. college professor named Alan Jabbour!

    Peter was a skilled arbitrator of, at times, provocatively vocal discussions. He easily could have graduated with a degree in diplomacy from Georgetown!

    Our thoughts and prayers go with you all.

  7. When I interned at the AFC, Peter went way out of way to include me in staff get togethers, and his door was always open. What a kind and generous human being and an inspiration to all who work in cultural related research.

  8. AFC and VHP Friends:

    Sorry to hear of Peter’s death. I had the pleasure of working closely with him for a number of years and never failed to be impressed by his knowledge and warmed by his wit and enormous heart. Talented and charming, it’s hard to imagine the Center without him. Condolences to his family and many friends.

    Godspeed, Peter.

  9. Oh, Peter. It was a special time that I knew you, working together on the Veterans History Project in the 2000’s. I learned so much from you about folklore and oral history methodologies, and I recall we had a great time of it. We shared much laughter amid the project-building, as I recall. Peace, brother.

  10. Peter, how I wish you were here with us, now.

    I’ll never forget your sense of community and collegiality, from that first phone call prompted by news of a fellow New Englander, to your humoring of an embarrassed acolyte who spent much of our AFC Holiday Party prep prodding you for stories of fieldwork.

  11. I first worked at the American Folklife Center as a Fellow in 1986 working on a project to survey photographs in the collections to see what needed to be done to improve their care. When I came back to work at the Center again in 1989 as an archival assistant, many thousands of photographs and slides in the American Folklife Center’s fieldwork project collections were still stored in office space in filing cabinets, not under the care of archival staff. Field notes too were stored in these filing cabinets. I proposed, with the support of the few archival staff of that time, to rehouse these in modern archival storage and move them to safe storage in the stacks. Initially this was not a popular idea with most of the staff folklorists who worked on these field projects. It was convenient to have their prior work close at hand as they worked on publications, exhibits, and new field projects. Here I was, just about to complete my PhD, not even a permanent staff member, and I was telling them what should be done.

    Once, when I was on the reference desk Peter Bartis came down to confront me about my proposal. He wanted to know what, exactly, was the advantage in moving these collections into archival storage? So I told him. I explained that the storage that the photographs were in would lead to gradual damage. Worse, I had found examples of rapid, permanent light damage to some slides that had been left exposed on office desks. Proper storage and new handling guidelines could prevent such damage. I emphasized that I saw these collections and the work that had gone into them as extremely valuable, and so the collections deserved archival care to preserve them so that they could be used for a long time to come. Peter allowed that I made some important points and said he would think about it. I thought perhaps I had been too blunt, and made things worse. To my surprise, what came back to me in office talk was that Peter was now speaking up for me and my plan. Peter was calling me “feisty” and said that that was a good thing, because “you need to be feisty to succeed around here.”

    I realized that Peter saw in me something he also saw in himself. We came to be friends and we worked together on a number of projects. As a permanent staff member I began working on getting information about the Center onto the internet, starting with some of its publications. I worked with Peter on getting Folklife and Fieldwork and the Folklife Sourcebook (directory) online. Peter became excited about the potential of the internet to achieve a level of public outreach not possible before. And so he kept internet presentations in mind as he suggested and implemented new projects. That meant that we worked together on the implementation of several of these including the Local Legacies Project, The Veterans History Project, and, most recently, The Library of Congress Presents the Songs of America.

    What I will miss about Peter the most is his capacity to look at problems from different angles from anybody else. He often had novel approaches to problems, just as he had a novel approach to that new staff member of many years ago. And, yes, he was “feisty” too, and that was a good thing.

  12. I knew Peter from afar for many years but only really worked with him after arriving at the AFC in 2012. Many others have commented on Peter’s kindness and his way of making all kinds of folk people feel comfortable. He certainly made me feel welcome and took time to clue me in to the mysterious ways of the federal government. For me, it was critical. When I needed help, I knew I could on Peter to speak truthfully. Thank you Peter…

  13. I only worked with Peter a short while here at the AFC, but forever will recall the generosity, humor, and respect he brought to the task of taking me on board as his “boss.” From loaning me his key to the office door until I got my own to printing out important emails that would help illuminate my path into administration, he very clearly offered me support in a way that illustrated how important AFC and his colleagues were to him. Thanks for all you did, Peter.

  14. I never saw Peter at work in the field, but it was easy to imagine how good he must have been at getting people to talk to him. He was fond of dropping by for a quick chat during someone’s reference desk shift. It was then I would learn all manner of things from him about the history of the archives or, early on, how to house hunt in DC. Peter was such an advocate for AFC and its people. I am grateful for his help and support.

  15. I was blessed to sit next to Peter during a brief detail in AFC in late 2015-2016. I don’t know if we saw eye-to-eye on what we believed teaching using folklore collections meant but I enjoyed listening to his stories about his teaching experiences and his ideas about bringing folklife into the classroom. He made me laugh. He made me smile. He made me think. And his loss makes me sad. Bright blessings to his husband and all who called him friend.

  16. Peter Bartis helped coordinate the Veterans History Project (VHP) partnership program between the American Folklife Center (AFC) and the American Folklore Society. In 2002-2003, freelancing in Maryland during this period as a VHP workshop leader, I had the good fortune of spending time with Peter at the VHP archive. Peter was always there, it seemed; always a presence keeping the project momentum going. Although completely unassuming, by virtue of just being around him, before you knew it you were as energized about his work as he was. Peter’s inspiration led me to interview my father for the Veterans History Project. Words can not communicate what an honor it was to bring Captain John P. Manger, WWII, 1939-1945, US Army Corp of Engineers, into the project…and doubly so knowing Peter’s long term vision for the VHP would make it all the more worthwhile. During his remarkable career, Peter paid tribute to untold numbers, always turning the focus on others it seems. Now it’s Peter’s time, it’s Peter’s place; may the light shine on him. Thank you for the example you set for us all, Peter. You will be missed.

  17. Thank you for this illuminating and so very touching tribute to my high school classmate. I reconnected with Peter at our 45th reunion and then again for the 50th which he was planning to attend until those plans had to change. I was just getting to know Peter again. He sent me an email Dec. 3rd that I missed somehow with a link to the latest publication. I would have loved more time, was just starting to get to know who his was now. So sad to have missed out. None of what I have read about Peter’s accomplishments and character surprises me in that he always demonstrated these qualities way back when. Although he was taken early I am glad to learn of the fullness of his life both personally and professionally. I hope to share his story with students at our high school today as a source of inspiration and also with our other classmates. RIP Peter, Godspeed, you live on in people’s hearts, you did good!

  18. I worked at the Library from 2002 to 2017.

    In 2008, I visited distant cousins in rural County Donegal, Ireland; it was my first visit to Ireland. The cousins, Madge and James (twins), were 89 at the time and James had lived his whole life on the family farm in a remote valley. Madge married for a few decades, spent her married life a few valleys over, then returned to live with her brother after her husband died. After spending a week with them, I was struck by the life they lead—a way of life that was disappearing—and I was eager to return the following year to video record their oral histories, to capture what I could. But I had no idea how to do it.

    After returning to work, I visited Folklife a few times looking for answers but, for whatever reason, I found little interest or help from the few people I talked with. I came to feel that maybe my little project wasn’t as important as if I were donating a fully formed collection to the Folklife Center. And then I met Peter.

    I now know that I was extremely fortunate. He treated my plans with respect and he was generous with his time and advice. He gave me a copy of “Folklife & Fieldwork” and we would meet occasionally for coffee or outside the Jefferson building during one of his many daily cigarette breaks while I quizzed him. He patiently answered all my questions about video and audio equipment and its placement, and he helped me draw up a list of possible questions that I could broach with James and Madge. He stressed the importance of not making assumptions. (When I returned from the second visit to Donegal with 9 hours of recordings, I told Peter about how l had asked James and Madge about, among other things, fairies and folklore, and how James seemed reticent to say much about the subject. Peter suggested that James might’ve been wary about coming off as a hick. It was an “aha” moment for me that made perfect sense. And a casual folklife insight on Peter’s part.)

    After that, Peter and I would meet for coffee occasionally or sit outside in the sunshine and yack about any old thing. He was easy to get along with, down-to-earth, and had a great sense of humor. Every moment in his company was a pleasure.

    Thank you, Steve, for your eloquent article. I had no idea about Peter’s rich background and his long list of contributions. He was as unassuming as he was warm and wise. The Library of Congress has lost a cultural treasure.

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