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Crowdsourcing Transcriptions: “At the Library and in the Field: John and Alan Lomax Papers”

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This guest post comes from Todd Harvey, a Reference Specialist and the curator of Lomax collections at the American Folklife Center.

Memo from 1940 noting that Alan Lomax brought Woody Guthrie to the Library of Congress for a recording session.
Correspondence, Alan Lomax, March 1940, John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers (AFC 1933/001, Box 5, Folder 155).

To the Librarian of Congress

March 21, 1940

Alan Lomax has in Washington with him today and tomorrow a folk singer for whose excellence he vouchers. This singer, Woodie Guthrie by name, is willing to sing many recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song while in the city. I recommend that 50 (fifty) blank acetate discs be purchased at once.”

Edward N. Waters, Acting-Chief, Division of Music, Library of Congress

The above memorandum authorized Woody Guthrie’s first extensive studio session. Now famed as the “Library of Congress Sessions” these recordings served—for Alan and Woody—as a radio audition. Just a week later Woody debuted along with the Golden Gate Quartet on Alan’s ongoing radio series Folk Music of America, episode number 22, “Poor Farmer Songs,” a nationwide broadcast on CBS’s American School of the Air. Rarely does one get to hear history in the making and to see the piece of paper behind the event. Even more rarely appears the vehicle through which you can make this memorandum and thousands of others more user-accessible.

This precise opportunity arises in the latest crowdsourcing collaboration between the American Folklife Center and the Library’s By the People project titled “At the Library and in the Field: John and Alan Lomax Papers.” John A. Lomax, Sr., and his son Alan Lomax became stewards of a nascent Archive of American Folk-Song in September 1933. Their tenure lasted until Alan separated from the Library of Congress in October 1942. During that period, they administered an archive that grew in scope and volume. The resultant manuscript material—correspondence, memoranda, reports, notes, and writings—was decades later collated into the John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers (AFC 1933/001).

We thought it sufficient when we processed these papers and made them accessible to on-site researchers about a decade ago. Neither that activity, nor the online finding aid satisfied user interest, so the papers were digitized and place online in early 2021. That was not yet enough! Here is why:

Analog manuscript papers have an intrinsically high research value because they contain contextualized data. To use the above example, the Library’s Music Division wrote to the Librarian of Congress about Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie on a particular date—an event that we now deem propitious. Limitations of archival processing dictate that neither of those names appear in the collection’s folder- and item-level descriptive tools. You will not find the memorandum by searching either the finding aid or the digital collection using the term “woody guthrie,” revealing significant metadata constraints.

Enter item-level crowdsourced transcriptions. We know that By the People campaigns enhance collection discoverability by benefit of recent experience: Two years ago AFC launched “The Man Who Recorded the World: On the Road with Alan Lomax” campaign, 11,000 pages of field notes and song texts that were successfully transcribed by more than a thousand users. These transcriptions were then ingested back into the digital collection, which meant that all of those field notebooks suddenly had full-text access. If you don’t believe me, search “Kind Lover Blues” in the Alan Lomax Collection digital collection and you will find that the young Muddy Waters held a copy of Arthur Crudup’s 78 RPM recording in his personal collection.

Man wearing tie uses mechanical typewriter at a small round table.
Alan Lomax at his Hermes typewriter, ca.1940. Alan Lomax collection (AFC 2004/004). American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

My work with the many archival collections at the American Folklife Center has taught me that patrons want three things. First, they want access to authoritative data about collections, which we provide in bibliographic records, guides, and finding aids. Second, patrons want access to digital content. The online Lomax corpus contains now more than a quarter million pages of manuscripts, in addition to photographs and the famous field recordings. Third, patrons want to contribute their knowledge and experience to the American Folklife Center enterprise. By the People crowdsourcing campaigns tick all three boxes.

So take an hour this evening and open your browser to “At the Library and in the Field: John and Alan Lomax Papers.” Make an account so that you can transcribe and also review the work of others (everything gets two sets of eyes). Finally, pour a cold lemonade and tuck in to your desk—Hermes typewriter at the ready—to experience anew those halcyon days of the Archive of American Folk Song.


Comments (2)

  1. hats off to a wonderful successful project and an upbeat well-written solicitation for it!

    • Thanks for reading, and please do take the opportunity to participate in the transcription project!

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