Top of page

ETL: Searching the Lomax family papers through the magic of crowdsourcing

Share this post:

“ETL” is a wonderful acronym, a non-word, a nickname for a phrase by which insiders describe a complex process. ETL in the context of digital collections at the Library of Congress is short for “extract, transform, and load.” To a curator working with crowdsourced archival material “ETL” in an email subject line signals the final step in a process by which an archival collection becomes full-text searchable, the gold standard for access to manuscript materials.

The divisional umbrella for such activity is the now-storied By the People crowdsourcing program: five years, 31 campaigns, nearly half a million items transcribed by about 30,000 volunteers. The Library has never witnessed such a democratic undertaking, harnessing the work of many hands to increase collections accessibility. Page by page, volunteers have transcribed the words of Georgia O’Keeffe, Walt Whitman, the Federal Theater Project, Rosa Parks, and many others. Through ETL the crowdsourced data is gathered and then ingested back into the digital collections.

I curate the Lomax family collections at the American Folklife Center. During the 1930s, John A. Lomax and his son Alan administered the Archive of American Folk Song—now the American Folklife Center—and along the way recorded thousands of ordinary people singing songs, telling their life stories, and in other ways elucidating the cultural fabric of pre-War America. The papers associated with these recordings comprise the administrative history of the Archive during the Lomax tenure. Additionally, Alan Lomax enjoyed a long post-Library of Congress career that included many field projects and scholarly undertakings. Alan’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, had an unprecedented public folklore career with the National Endowment for the Arts. A guide to the entire corpus is online as Lomax Family: Resources in the American Folklife Center.

Two large collections of John and Alan Lomax’s manuscripts are online among Library of Congress digital collections, the John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers and the Alan Lomax collection. Both contain transcriptions generated through By the People: “At the Library and in the Field: The John and Alan Lomax papers,” followed closely “The Man Who Recorded the World: On the Road with Alan Lomax.” The crowdsourced data has been ETL’ed, and the transcriptions are now searchable in the digital collections. Both of the above provide folder-level descriptions, but researchers often voice a need to dive more deeply for specific terms like Parchman [penitentiary], Presto [recording machines], and Hazard [Kentucky].

What about the term “Hurston”? Novelist, playwright, and ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston figures prominently among Lomax scholarship because of her mentorship and friendship with Alan during recording trips to the southeast United States (1935) and to Haiti (1936–1937). To gain an understanding of their relationship using primary resources we begin with the question, “Where is Hurston mentioned in the materials?” Here is where the crowdsourced data becomes useful. Open the Alan Lomax Collection online presentation and make a general search under “hurston”.

Screenshot of a Library of Congress web page illustrating a search of the Alan Lomax collection for the term "hurston"

The search returns a list of folders and the below folder holds a piece of correspondence containing the world “hurston”.

Screenshot of a Library of Congress web page illustrating a search of the Alan Lomax collection for the term "hurston"

Download the “Text (all pages)” and search within the file for “hurston.” Beginning with this letter we join Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Alan Lomax as they plan the 1935 southeast United States recording trip (Alan Lomax Collection: ms120263).

Screenshot of ta Library of Congress web page from the Alan Lomax collection demonstrating crowdsourced transcription of a 1935 letter from Mary Elizabeth Barnicle to Alan Lomax containing the search term '"hurston".

Further correspondence shows that on Monday, June 22, 1935. Alan wrote,

Dear Family, The party plans to leave here this morning for Lake Okeechobee. There Zora will organize some primitive Negro dancing for our camera and recording machine, while Miss Barnicle and I call on Mr. Henson, commissioner for the Seminole Indians. (AFC 2004/004: ms120262).

Shift now to the John A. and Alan Lomax Papers digital collection and make the same search. You will find, among other items, a report from Alan to the Library dated August 3, 1935 (AFC 1933/001: ms115). The guitarist mentioned in the first paragraph was likely Gabriel Brown, recorded in Eatonville, Florida, in late June 1936 (Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle expedition collection AFC 1935/001 discs AFS 355–361). The second paragraph contains illuminating details about the migrant farm working communities around Lake Okeechobee. The Bahaman fire dancers were recorded in Chosen, Florida (AFC 1935/001: discs AFS 375–385).

Our next stop was in Eatonville, Florida, where Miss Hurston was born and brought up. [Eatonville was the first incorporated Negro town in American and for the reason, has a different sort of life than any other community Negro community I have so far visited.] Miss Hurston introduced us there to the finest Negro guitarist I have heard so far, better even than Lead Belly although of a slightly different breed. His records along with a more usual group of spiritual, and work-songs, and children’s games were made up and we moved on to Belle Glade on Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades.

About ten or fifteen years ago the Government drained this section of the everglades and opened it up for farming. The soil is rick, black muck, so acid that it burns a sensitive skin, and out of this soil you can almost see the plants as they grow. In the bean-picking season, for let it be known that this section of the world furnishes most of the beans and cabbages for the Northern markets in the winter, Bella Glade, a town of two or three thousand inhabitants, swarms with from ten to fifteen thousand workers from all over the South. Most of these are Negroes. And folk-songs are as thick as marsh mosquitoes. For the first three or four days we recorded work-songs, ballads, spirituals of the usual sort, them Miss Hurston introduced us into a small community of Bahaman Negroes. We then heard our first fire-dances and for the first time, although we and other collectors and searched the South, and the heavy, exciting rhythm of a drum. The dances and the songs were the closest to African I had ever heard in America. These, along with a set of spirituals and chanties new to me, we recorded and then moved on to Miami for a little rest.

three people on a porch
Zora Neale Hurston, Rochelle French, and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida, 1935. Lomax Collection. Lot 7414-C, no. N94. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Photo by Alan Lomax


laborers in a field cutting cabbages
Migrant laborers cutting cabbages near Lake Harbor in Lake Okeechobee region, Florida, 1939. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. LC-USF34- 051114-D LOT 1591. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott

Answering a mid-1936 query from Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, Hurston assures him that sending Alan Lomax to Haiti would benefit the Library’s collections. Preparations are made and on November 25, 1936, Hurston, already in Haiti, responds to a letter from Lomax about his impending trip. She provides sage advice about navigating the language, culture, healthcare, music, and Haitian and American governmental apparatuses. She wrote:

I have been here ten weeks, now. I got scared when I first got off the boat and forgot all my French, but being here is making me learn and also remember what I had forgotten. The Haitian people are a warm, courteous nation and you are not going to be sorry that you came.  But come you must!! (AFC 2004/004: ms120250)

The official Library of Congress travel voucher shows that Alan left Washington December 5 for New York and sailed for Port-au-Prince on December 10, likely arriving December 14. His expense itemizations end March 8, 1937. Alan’s typewritten index dates the last disc recording on April 20. The official 1937 Report of the Librarian of Congress provides the essential outcomes of the project: 58 ten-inch and 236 twelve-inch discs recording 1,500 Haitian songs and drum rhythms, and 350 feet of motion picture film.

While Alan traveled to document Haitian culture for the Library of Congress, Zora was in the region as a Fulbright Fellow and, during a productive seven weeks near the end of 1936, wrote a masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Look back to the August 3, 1935 letter quoted above. It will resonate with Hurston readers as a scene in the novel. Chapter eighteen of Their Eyes Were Watching God begins with a description of Bahaman workers who had joined the community harvesting the bountiful crop fields around Big Lake Okeechobee. Hurston wrote,

So they began to hold dances night after night in the quarters, usually behind Tea Cake’s house. Often now, Tea Cake and Janie stayed up so late at the fire dances that Tea Cake would not let her go with him into the field. He wanted her to get her rest.

Connections of this nature—an event documented in one of the Center’s collections and then incorporated into creative work—reinforce for me the value of deep access to archival material. There is no deeper access to manuscripts than transcriptions and the only method for creating accurate transcriptions at a critical scale is crowdsourcing. In my view, Library of Congress patrons want and expect access to digital content, they want authoritative data about the content, and they want to contribute. By the People crowdsourcing and the magic of ETL ticks all three boxes.

Further reading:


  1. thank you, todd. this selection about hurston amplifies so well the szwed biography, but includes wonderful pictures not found there, as well.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.