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Outgoing Archive Director Leaves Big Shoes to Fill

Head and shoulders portrait of Nicole Saylor

Nicole Saylor, former head of the American Folklife Center’s archive. Library of Congress photo.

From late December 2012 through early June 2021, Nicole Saylor led a team of archivists, ethnomusicologists and folklorists that curates the nation’s largest ethnographic archives. Collections in the American Folklife Center Archive, started in 1928 as the Archive of American Folk Song, range from the earliest field recordings made in the 1890s on wax cylinders through born-digital collections of personal narratives such as the StoryCorps collection. She was the tenth person to serve in the position, which has changed tremendously since the days when folksong collectors were at the helm generating their own recordings to seed the archives. Three generations later, she continued the work of preserving their collecting legacy while accelerating the transformation of an already well-established archives for the digital age. She recently took a position at the Library as the Chief of the Digital Innovation Lab, a position established to lead the Library’s innovation with digital collections and to support its digital transformation.  As she began her new position, we interviewed her about her time at AFC.

One of your biggest challenges at AFC must have been the building and expansion of digital capacity for the archives. Describe this challenge and what you did to meet it.

About a year after I arrived at AFC, I led the archives staff through a planning process to dream about what we wanted the archives to look like on its 100th anniversary in 2028. Staff had an overwhelming interest in accelerating the work of making collections more accessible. At the time, only a small fraction of AFC’s holdings were available online and a little over half of the collection was described in the online catalog at the collection level. AFC had some detailed online finding aids, however the rate at which those were published was fewer than five a year.

So we set about to streamline some processes, letting go of hand-crafting item-level descriptions and that kind of thing, so that collections could more quickly be made available online. We also worked with our digitization and online access colleagues across the Library to undertake two large-scale digitization efforts. One was to digitize more than 270,000 documents (field notes, radio scripts, correspondence, etc.) from Lomax family papers. Longtime collaborators with the Library, the Lomax family recorded such legendary musicians as Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”), Vera Ward Hall, McKinley Morganfield (“Muddy Waters”), Aunt Molly Jackson, Son House, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, and Woody Guthrie. The second was a priority of AFC Director Betsy Peterson, who wanted to showcase a significant body of AFC-sponsored fieldwork conducted from 1977 to 1997. The field surveys generated absolutely first-rate documentation and continue to influence public folklore collection practices to this day. So we digitized roughly 270,000 documentary items (sound recordings, black-and-white negatives, color slides, field notes, audio and photo logs, and more, totaling 21 terabytes) generated from more than 17 field projects. These two bodies of work represent some of the Center’s most extensive and important ethnography. We also set goals to complete collection-level cataloging of the entire archives, ramp up online finding aid production, and put online much of the contemporary collection of occupational folklife fieldwork generated by AFC’s Archie Green fellows.

It was ambitious, especially given the size of the staff at that time. The pace at which we plunged into this work was intense and looking back I probably led us to bite off more than we could chew at times. I would do some things differently in terms of pacing, if I had to do it again. Yet staff were tenacious and awesome throughout. Really, watching them mobilize around these goals was an amazing thing to behold. What’s more, the results of their efforts absolutely transformed the archives. Today, the bulk of the Lomax family collections are online and have been the focus of a highly popular crowdsourced transcription campaign. Eleven field projects are now accessible online, with more on the way. About 90 percent of the archives is described at the collection level in the online catalog, and staff doubled the rate at which it put new detailed finding aids online. What’s more, twenty-one occupational folklife projects are also available. The research value of these collections, their geographic diversity, and the range of historical and cultural topics covered is vast. The fact that they are now accessible worldwide is a boon for researchers and the communities documented.

The flurry of digitization, paired with a drastic increase in born-digital acquisitions, created a serious onslaught of digital files to manage. Digital curation in AFC started off as the job of a single staff member, which became unsustainable. Moving from that model to one where there is still a point person, but work is more distributed across the processing team, took effort. In early 2021, an internal working group was able to articulate specific practices, procedures, and tools for the archives that baked that work into the fabric of day-to-day archival work more than ever before. There is so much work to do in this area, but I feel encouraged by the collaborative solutions this group has put into practice.

Full-length portrait of Nicole Saylor among shelves in the stacks of the Library of Congress.

Nicole Saylor in the Archive. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

Preserving analog audiovisual materials was one of the Center’s most important goals. What did you do to ensure future access to those materials?

Another big goal that came out of our planning process in 2014 was to ensure that AFC’s collection of analog audiovisual (AV) collection remains accessible for the next hundred years. So we set off to find out what it would take to comprehensively digitize— by 2028— AFC’s entire analog AV holdings. That’s about 200,000 audiovisual carriers in all, and more than half were already digitized. Not only does 2028 mark the 100-year anniversary of the archives, but it is the rough deadline for digitizing analog recordings to ensure their preservation. Back in 2012, the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Plan estimated that only 15 to 20 years remained to digitize audio and moving image materials before most would be lost to obsolescence and degradation. In other words, equipment wouldn’t be available to play them back and/or the condition of the recordings would be too deteriorated to allow for a decent transfer.

So we hired consultants at AVP to do an assessment and recommend a way forward. The good news was that they found that more than half of the collection was already digitized. But that still left tens of thousands of carriers that needed to be transferred to digital for access and preservation. The results from the survey sparked all kinds of follow-on efforts to improve inventory records and pursue large-scale digitization. Staff at AFC and the National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) have been awash in efforts over the last couple of years to move large quantities of materials back and forth to digitization vendors.

What is amazing is that by the end of the current project in early 2022, AFC will only have about 20 percent of its AV collection (about. 40,000 carriers) left to digitize! The collections that have been made available for research, in just the current contract alone, include interviews with tradition-bearers donated by folklorists and ethnomusicologists ranging from Jeff Todd Titon to Nancy Sweezy. They include many live recordings featuring traditional artists such as storytellers who participated at International Storytelling Center festivals across the decades.

What are some of the other significant efforts in the AFC archive you’ve taken on?

I am so proud to have played a part in AFC’s long-standing work with indigenous communities going back to the Federal Cylinder Project started in the late 1970s. AFC has long viewed tribal collaborations as central to establishing new paradigms in curation and methods of access for indigenous materials. I had the privilege to help with piloting a new approach to collaborating with tribal communities to respectfully present their heritage online. The pilot features a digitized collection of wax cylinders documenting the songs and stories of the Passamaquoddy in Maine, and was released online in 2019. The recordings are accompanied by community-provided descriptions, translations, and other authoritative information about their cultural histories and heritage. The project piloted the use of community-supplied Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels displayed alongside descriptive information. TK Labels are tools for indigenous communities to denote their preference for how cultural artifacts from their communities should be used when accessed outside their own communities. Engineers at the National Audio Visual Conservation Center did a terrific job of creating digital copies from the original recordings that are sonically superior to any made before. This meant that Passamaquoddy elders could listen to them and make out the words being spoken and sung. These digitized recordings gained new critical importance in the community as a language and cultural preservation tool. In 2018, community members came to the Library to talk about the project and perform a song from those recordings not heard publicly since its documentation some 128 years ago–you can see video of that remarkable presentation at this link. It was one of my best days at the Library.

Head and shoulders portrait of two women.

Nicki is also part of the American Folklife Center’s archival collections. This photo of Nicki and Abbie Grotke is part of their StoryCorps interview in AFC’s StoryCorps collection.

What else? I have been tasked with some pretty wild assignments. One was to figure out if the Library could acquire tens of thousands of born-digital oral narratives created by the public on a then-new StoryCorps mobile app. Thanks to library technologists, we were able to develop a way to ‘fetch’ the collection in an efficient way. Another task was to secure the funding and figure out the logistics of moving nearly 9,000 wax cylinders from a lower deck in the Jefferson building to NAVCC for first-rate climate-controlled storage and digitization. Thanks to staff in Preservation and AFC and fine art movers, we did it. Those fragile cylinders contain some of the Archive’s most historically significant field recordings, including the earliest ethnographic recordings ever made. The move was needed for a variety of reasons, including to enable the ramping up of cylinder digitization.

One of the most fun parts of an archive job is to observe the great collections that come in. Which acquisitions during your time at AFC (and/or collections we already had) stand out to you, and why?

I am really grateful to AFC’s acquisitions team for overseeing collection building in a way that is diverse, contemporary, and strategically developed. The new acquisition of the audio diaries from COVID healthcare workers is just one stellar recent example. Betsy’s desire to diversify the cultures, peoples, and subjects represented in collections was a goal we shared and I happily worked toward it.

I enjoyed helping establish the Web Cultures Web Archive to preserve folklore on the web in collaboration with colleagues in what was then the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. The goal was to create a new way to meet the archives’ mission of documenting traditional culture in all of its forms, including folklore created on smart phones, tablets, and wireless Internet connections.

One of the most gratifying acquisitions was the AIDS Memorial Quilt Records collection. It was Betsy’s vision to acquire this collection. I was lucky that she put me on the job of appraising the collection, helping the donors prepare it for transfer to the archives, and planning for its care once at the Library. After years of planning and negotiations, the acquisition culminated in a wonderful ceremony in the Library’s Great Hall and a display of the newly arrived items. It was another amazing day at the Library, and you can see video at this link.

A man holds an archival record sleeve while two women and another man watch him.

Nicki Saylor (far right) looks on with Betsy Peterson (far left) and John Fenn (second from right), as Billy Bragg (center) holds the record sleeve for “Rock Island Line” in the AFC Research Center. Bragg was filming a documentary about the song.

Looking ahead, what do you see as some near-future opportunities (or challenges) for the AFC archive, as well as other ethnographic archives?

The pandemic has forced a remarkable shift in thinking about how to do archival work in a remote environment. AFC’s reference staff did a great job in adapting and finding creative ways to engage groups from remote. There is so much more to explore in this area, and I hope they continue to look for new ways to bring their amazing curatorial expertise to the virtual world.

The Library has a tremendous amount of new digital library technology in development that will come online in roughly the next one to three years. It promises to revolutionize the way the archives brings in and makes accessible its collections. I am eager to see AFC continuing to advocate for the needs of multi-format special collections and use these new tools to surface digital collections awaiting better access.

The new Andrew W. Mellon-funded Community Collecting initiative allows AFC to deepen its commitment to and understanding of how to work with communities and respond to collection stewardship needs as defined by community members. AFC has long worked hard to democratize the public record and be responsive to community perspectives. Interest in this work is only growing. AFC has a lot to offer and a lot to gain from the larger professional conversations underway right now.

Oh, and one last thing. A wave of public sector folklorists who entered burgeoning folklore programs starting in about the 1970s are now retiring. Their individual and organizational collections are amazing and those need good archival homes, ideally near to the communities documented!

Three women wear hats depicting sea life: a squid, a shark, and a crab.

Nicki Saylor (center) with Kelly Revak (left) and Sarah Lerner (right), wear hats depicting sea creatures for Halloween in the AFC Research Center.

Finally, what will you miss about AFC?

The collections are amazing, yes, but more than that I absolutely adore my AFC colleagues. Many of them have been at it for decades, making AFC the creative and special place that it is, while a crop of eight new archives staff members hired in 2019 are transforming the enterprise with their talents and perspectives. The deep knowledge staff have about the collections always impresses me. They continually experiment and innovate with technologies to find better ways to do their work. On top of it all, I also happen to find them delightful and interesting as people. They were so resilient and adaptable during the pandemic and the events of January 6 despite facing significant professional and personal challenges. It was an honor to lead this staff these last eight and a half years. They were fearless in charging after big goals and worked so hard. I hope they are at least half as proud of what they have accomplished as I am. I cannot wait to see the Archives at 100!

Half-length portrait of Nicki Saylor holding a sign that says "Bye!"

Nicole Saylor with one of AFC’s legacy displays. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

One Comment

  1. Scott Kleyla
    August 27, 2021 at 10:54 am

    True honor to share such meaningful work and treasures yet to be discovered await with those archives being returned to the ancestral communities for future generations to explore and retrieve wisdom from history. Audio/Visual records storage and modernization must be a challenge.

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