The American Folklife Center is bidding a fond farewell to Elizabeth “Betsy” Peterson, who has retired from the position of Director after ten years in that role. Her leadership engaged all facets of the Center’s activity–from stewardship of the collections to expansion of public programming and outreach–and she routinely anchored that leadership in an ethos of collaboration and collegiality.
Her achievements as Director are numerous, impressive, and will continue to shape the work of AFC in the coming years. Under her direction and encouragement, the Center accelerated the digitization of collections for preservation but also, and importantly, for online access. She put particular emphasis on the AFC “field survey” project collections in this regard, and also championed online access for the Occupational Folklife Collections generated by the Archie Green Fellowships. These materials represent some of the most significant collection efforts supported by or undertaken by the American Folklife Center, and when she began her term as Director both collection clusters were largely unavailable online (or fully cataloged). Today, these materials have a significant online presence and see use by a broad audience.
Betsy helped guide staff in significantly revising the Collection Development Policy for AFC in order to reflect current and future folklife field research practices, ideas and areas of interest. Parallel to this work, she also directed staff to expand and diversify collections to include more audio visual media and expand areas of documentation. Additionally, Betsy was instrumental in securing several significant acquisitions, including: the AIDS Memorial Quilt records; the Kitchen Sisters collection; the Candacy Taylor ‘Route 66’ project collection; and the Martin Koenig collection.
Collection development work is not limited to bringing materials into the Library, but also involves the ethical aspects of stewardship—and Betsy was always attentive to this facet of the work. She oversaw efforts to digitize AFC’s significant Native American collections, with increased engagement involving tribal partnerships and other governmental organizations. These efforts build on AFC’s long legacy of stewardship of Native American collections through the Federal Cylinder Project and continue AFC’s leadership within the Library around key issues of intellectual property, rights of cultural communities represented in collections, and a turn toward collaborative curation of collections.
Enhancing the role for communities in collections development via self-representation was a major motivation for a significant project that Betsy helped launch: the Community Collections Grant program. A component in the Of the People initiative at the Library of Congress supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the grant program provides funding and other support to communities to conduct their own cultural documentation projects. This multi year grant program will generate up to 30 ethnographic collections produced by communities, enhancing the AFC holdings in a number of ways while enabling communities to represent themselves in the archive.
With regards to the public programs, outreach, and communications side of AFC, Betsy always supported the dynamic work done by staff. She oversaw the publication of a new edition of our fieldwork guide, Folklife and Fieldwork, and the creation of this very blog as well as the podcast Folklife Today, as well as the podcast America Works. She spearheaded an impressive number of programs and publications marking the 40th anniversary of AFC in 2016.
A program that is especially important to Betsy is the AFC Folklife Internship, a paid summer experience designed to provide experiences in archival practice, cultural heritage research, and programming, while building participants’ knowledge about ethnographic materials. Betsy worked closely with the late Peter Bartis–a former staff member at the Center– to shape the AFC’s first paid internship program, which he funded through a generous gift upon his retirement. Since it launched in 2018, the program has supported six interns, offering training and mentorship to the next generation of cultural workers.
Much of the work detailed above represents discrete initiatives or high visibility projects, but Betsy invested significant effort into backstage work, too. She focused on the rebuilding and, in some cases, reshaping of the Center’s infrastructure, after several years of staff attrition (from retirements and other) and broad federal budget cuts. From the start, she prioritized rebuilding the archives infrastructure through the bureaucratic work of updating, upgrading and standardizing many job descriptions; revamping some of the work processes and encouraging a more collaborative work culture; and encouraging the diversification of work skills.
At the Veterans History Project Betsy worked closely with two directors, Bob Patrick and Karen Lloyd, and oversaw the hiring of the current director, Monica Mohindra. She also sought to establish close alignment of the work of VHP within the AFC, largely through an Library-approved reorganization that is still in its early phases. Finally, across the decade of her time at the Center she oversaw a major increase in the number of staff, bringing on Nicole Saylor as Head of Archives (and later Director of Archives) and John Fenn as Head of Programs and Research and more than doubling the number of people working to support the Center’s mission!
Everything offered above represents only a sliver of Betsy’s legacy at the Center. All staff are grateful to her for ensuring that we are on solid footing upon her retirement, despite the ongoing pandemic, a physical relocation of our reading room and administrative offices, and any number of other disruptions! Let’s all take a moment to thank Betsy, and say goodbye with a song from the Archive, “Adios Adios,” recorded from Lottie Espinosa by Sidney Robertson Cowell.