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The Homecoming of the James Madison Carpenter Collection: A Transatlantic Collaboration

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On March 27, 2018, at Cecil Sharp House in London, the English Folk Dance and Song Society and the Elphinstone Institute of the University of Aberdeen hosted the public event ”40,000 Miles in Quest of Tradition: A Celebration of Carpenter Folk Online.” The event celebrated the launch of AFC’s James Madison Carpenter Collection at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Online Digital Archive. As part of the festivities, Jennifer Cutting and I traveled to England, where Jennifer gave a speech on behalf of the Library of Congress. Together, we performed two of the songs Carpenter collected in the United States in a concert that also included Scottish and English singers and musicians interpreting Carpenter’s British material. We’ll post a blog in the near future describing the event in more detail.  For now, we decided to present Jennifer’s remarks from the event, followed by a letter from AFC’s director Betsy Peterson, which Jennifer read after her own remarks.

Jennifer Cutting delivers these remarks at Cecil Sharp House in London, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, March 27, 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Jennifer’s words begin here:

It is a great joy to be here at Cecil Sharp House to celebrate the launch of the James Madison Carpenter Collection online on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s fantastic Online Digital Archive.

I have a special affection for this place, because it was here that the 21-year-old version of me did some of the research for the M. Mus in Ethnomusicology that I earned at King’s College, University of London, under the tutelage of the redoubtable A.L. Lloyd, and ably assisted by a very young Malcolm Taylor, so many years before he ever dreamed he would be awarded the much-deserved OBE. We are so happy he has such a capable successor in Library Director Laura Smyth, whose extraordinary work on the Online Digital Archive has shepherded the project into the digital age and given it a worldwide audience.

Today’s Carpenter Folk Online launch is the culmination of a long partnership between the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and the team of scholars based at the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen led by Dr. Julia Bishop and Dr. Thomas McKean.

For both parties, it’s been a labor of love and it’s required a love of labor!

As Julia often says, Carpenter was fond of quoting numbers indicating the size of his collection. A brochure he created to promote his lectures boasts:

Five hundred versions of sea songs and chanteys.
Seven hundred versions of popular ballads.
Three hundred versions of folk-plays.
Two hundred versions of children’s songs, games, tales, fables.
Five hundred versions of Scottish songs.

James Madison’s Carpenter promotional brochure, part of the James Madison Carpenter collection (AFC 1972/001). In the left panel, read Carpenter’s enumeration of some of the collection’s contents. In the lower right, see the page number added by Julia Bishop and Michael Taft in 2001: page 12,610!

In that spirit, I will mention a few other significant numbers. The American Folklife Center Archive now has over 5.5 million items…we think it’s the largest ethnographic archive of its kind. We are the people who ensure that these 5.5 million items reflecting the voices of ordinary people are kept at the Library of Congress alongside the papers of United States presidents and the sound recordings of Beyoncé and Frank Sinatra.

Another significant number: 22 years. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we began working together on this Herculean task, but I date it back to March 1996, when the American Folklife Center launched our very first fellowship award, the Gerald E. and Corinne L. Parsons Fund Award for Ethnography. As soon as I found out this funding was available, I immediately called Julia to recommend she apply, and I enthusiastically defended her application in the selection committee meetings that followed. Julia became our very first Parsons Fund Fellow at the American Folklife Center, and the first non-U.S. scholar to receive funding from the American Folklife Center for work with our collections. She’s continued to show extraordinary vision and leadership ever since that first trip, and we wouldn’t be here tonight without her drive to make the collection available to everyone.

Julia Bishop shows materials from the James Madison Carpenter Collection to Peggy Parsons, whose late husband, Gerry, established the Parsons Fund for Ethnography in the Library of Congress. From left to right: Judith Gray, chair of the 1996 Parsons Fund Committee; Julia Bishop; Alan Jabbour, then director of AFC; and Peggy Parsons. Photo by James Hardin, 1996.

And how about the number 14,500? That’s the approximate number of Carpenter manuscript pages Julia and the then-head of our archive, Dr. Michael Taft, hand-numbered during Julia’s 2001 visit, persevering with bleary eyes late into each evening until the job was done.

At over 15,000 physical items, the Carpenter collection is one of the most extensive collections of folklore ever assembled in Britain. For over 45 years, the Library of Congress has been the home of this collection. Our work on it began when the late Alan Jabbour purchased the collection for the Library of Congress from James Madison Carpenter in 1972. The collection had lived under Carpenter’s bed in the Mississippi heat for decades, so we had to undertake extensive preservation: rubber bands had melted into the wax of the cylinders, and mail sacks were decaying around fragile onionskin typescripts. We also worked on access, creating reel-to-reel reference copies in the days before digital, so that people could hear the collection at the Library.  We provided similar reference copies to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and the Aberdeen Public Library so they could be consulted there. We created a catalog record for the collection and a detailed finding aid to improve access. We handled duplication of the collection whenever a researcher needed copies.

Most importantly, when technology allowed, we raised and spent significant money to digitize the collection. In July of 2000, a joint proposal from AFC and the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage was awarded a grant for $750,000 to preserve historic sound recordings housed at the two institutions. The White House Millennium Council’s preservation program Save America’s Treasures, in partnership with the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, made the grant. AFC and CFCH had to raise $750,000 in private matching funds to digitize Carpenter and other designated collections, which we happily did.

But while we’re proud that an American had the vision and energy to make the collection, and proud that the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has been its home, we also recognize that in its new best digital form, it should return home to Britain. We’ve repatriated collections to other countries and communities, and we recognize that British collections, too, should come home. To that end, we’ve been delighted to work with colleagues here at the English Folk Dance and Song Society, including Katy Spicer, the Chief Executive and Artistic Director, and Rachel Elliott, the Education Director. Both of them have shown great dedication and support for the project.

As a civil servant with over 30 years at the Library of Congress, my great joy and my great responsibility has been to support the research of others. So I’ve always known how important this collection is to both Americans and our British colleagues. And I know that folklore research will be best served by having this collection online here at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.  That’s why I’ve always fought for this to happen, and why I’m so happy to see this day.

Julia Bishop visits the Library’s Special Formats Lab with Jennifer Cutting, to examine specimens of the 179 Dictaphone cylinders in the James Madison Carpenter Collection slated for restoration and new transfers. Photo by James Hardin, 2001.

I also want to convey the congratulations of all of my colleagues at the American Folklife Center, with the special good wishes of AFC archivist Marcia Segal, who has been so important to this project over the years. And in particular I want to read a letter from our director, Betsy Peterson.

Betsy Peterson’s words begin here:

Dear Thomas, Julia, Katy, Laura, Rachel, and all of the members of the Carpenter Folk Online Project Team,

On behalf of the Library of Congress, I send heartfelt congratulations to our friends and colleagues at the Elphinstone Institute and the English Folk Dance and Song Society on the occasion of this culminating event honoring the Carpenter Folk Online project, which makes available the James Madison Carpenter collection to view, browse, and search online alongside other significant collections at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

This has been a long transatlantic journey that required the passion, expertise and stubborn commitment of partners from England, Scotland and the United States. Now, as the Carpenter collection finds it way back home and comes full circle, it will also reach new audiences and new generations here and throughout the world. They will pick up the songs and tunes and breathe their own lives and truths into them. The best preservation of tradition always happens through continued performing and sharing.

The Library of Congress is proud to have Jennifer Cutting and Stephen Winick represent the American Folklife Center here tonight. Over the years, they have offered their own considerable expertise and advocacy on behalf of the Carpenter collection. And they’re also the AFC staff’s specialists in singing and playing Carpenter’s material! Nonetheless, the entire AFC staff is with everyone there in spirit.

We look forward to future transatlantic partnerships and collaborations.

With best wishes,

Elizabeth Peterson

Director, American Folklife Center

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