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Conversation with Nathan Salsburg, Curator at the Lomax Association for Cultural Equity

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The American Folklife Center’s partnership with the Association for Cultural Equity dates from the Library’s acquisition of the Alan Lomax collection in 2004. The partnership focuses on creating access to and awareness of Lomax Family collections. The following is a conversation between Todd Harvey and Nathan Salsburg, respective curators from the American Folklife Center (AFC) and Association for Cultural Equity (ACE).screen capture from Lomax Digital archive website

TH: Hi Nathan, thanks for taking time to talk. You and I have worked together on many projects during the past two decades. Can you tell our readers about your role with the ACE?

NS: I’m curator of ACE’s Lomax Digital Archive. The LDA, which launched last year, is a free, searchable database that provides complete access to all of Alan Lomax’s post-1946 recordings, photographs, and much of his video work—nearly 23,000 discrete items, as well as descriptive metadata—as well as, increasingly, the recording collections he and his father John A., made together and separately during their employ at the Library of Congress between 1933 and 1946. This is the new iteration of what we long called the Alan Lomax Archive, a term that—since the Library assumed physical control of Alan Lomax’s post-1946 fieldwork in 2004—referred strictly to our digital collections, but that was frequently, understandably!, confused with the AFC’s Alan Lomax Collection, of which you’re curator. Hopefully the LDA makes a clearer distinction.

screen capture of Lomax digital collections from American Folklife Center website

TH: Yes, the overlap between our two organizations has become part of the intellectual landscape for me and I know that we both spend time helping others navigate that overlap. Combine the LDA’s 23,000 audio, video, and photographs with AFC’s 500,000 manuscript pages, audio and photographs, and we have a formidable online research center. Let me ask you, from your perspective, how the ACE/AFC partnership has evolved?

NS: I doubt that when the original physical acquisition took place we could have anticipated the extent of the collaborative potential involving digitized Lomax material. Development of the online archive of Alan’s independent collections was in its earliest, most rudimentary stages—its actuality some years away—and I don’t think any of us thought we’d reach the point where we were able to devote ourselves to digitizing, cataloging, and presenting the Lomaxes’ Archive of Folk Song-era collections (1933–1946). Since 2014 we’ve done just that, with a combined roughly 120 hours of Kentucky, Mississippi, and South Carolina recordings made under AFC auspices available through the LDA, and we’re actively seeking funding to include more. Without the AFC’s expertise and enthusiastic commitment, we’d have gotten nowhere.

What do you think? You yourself have been a real hero to me, helping share the load of research queries and licensing requests.

TH: As you say, it seems that our partnership has reached a moment when we are focused on putting digital content online. Working with you and using the Lomax Digital Archive is one of the great joys of my professional life. It is a rich resource that presents digital content from all periods of Alan’s professional life–fieldwork, radio, video–with clear organization and authoritative metadata. Almost every day researchers ask for access to Lomax content and, invariably, when I point out the LDA their eyes widen.

Following up on this idea of authority, the LDA metadata about the early Mississippi recordings, for example, has its foundation in the Folklife Center’s card catalog. How have you enhanced that 75-year-old data?

NS: Absolutely. The Traditional Music and Spoken Word card catalog is an indispensable resource in doing this work. Without it, we’d be scouring the original disc sleeves and field notes for title, performer, location, and date information. That goes for all the AFS-era collections. To that baseline data, we add item-level instrumentation, genre, alternate titles where applicable, and more detailed location data—specific setting where known, county/region, lat/long—for inclusion in the LDA. And you and I both know that the card catalog, compiled as it was in, what, 1940–41?, has its fair share of errors. It’s a real satisfaction to have a means of correcting them, if not to the actual database itself. A dream, of course, would be to link card catalog entries to their corresponding item records in the LDA, and vice versa. Someday?

index card of audio recording
Image of index card for disc AFS 882 side A band 3

Click here to listen to the recording.

TH:  Right, because sometimes with the Lomax recordings the universe of primary source documentation about a session is limited to the audio, the disc or tape container, the original inventory or the card catalog. There must be a way to assemble this material into one digital space. Our work is far from complete.

So the newest iteration of our partnership is the Lomax Digital Library presentation of early South Carolina recordings. Can you tell me about that?

screen capture from Lomax Digital Archive website

NS: Like the digitization/cataloging/presentation of the 1933–1942 Kentucky material, which ACE and the AFC completed in collaboration with Berea College and the University of Kentucky, the South Carolina project involved an institution in the place where the recordings came from, in this case the Charles W. Joyner Institute for Gullah and African-Diaspora Studies at Coastal Carolina University. Its former director, Eric Crawford, was the project’s instigator, and applied for and was rewarded a crucial National Archives grant that arranged for delivery of John Lomax’s Gullah-related recordings (from Murrels Inlet, Sandy Island, and of the Wadmalaw Island participants in Rosa Warren Wilson’s “Plantation Echoes” program). That grant supported my work to edit, speed- and pitch-correct (when needed/where possible), and catalog not just the Gullah material but all the other S.C. recordings John made. So this three-part collaboration has made possible the public presentation, via the LDA, of all 12 hours of the John Lomax South Carolina collection. Only a fraction of this material’s ever been made publicly available.

Now you tell me, Todd. To what extent does the current project have roots in the Gullah-Geechee and African Diaspora conference in 2019? I wasn’t able to attend.

TH: It was an empowering experience to be among Gullah-Geechee scholars, tradition bearers and institutions. The Joyner Institute hosted an event that was part celebration, part information-sharing. One highlight occurred when ACE and AFC repatriated copies of 1930s recordings made in Murrels Inlet to members of that community. Online access to the early South Carolina recordings now complements the ACE/AFC participation in the conference, the repatriation event, and our guide Gullah-Geechee Collections at the American Folklife Center, all steps that, hopefully, increase use of the collections. We could say the same about any of the dozens of Lomax field trips and sessions online through the LDA.

NS: As you well know, ACE has been working diligently to find funding to digitize, catalog, and make available the remaining 380-odd hours of Lomax AFS recordings. The Texas collection is the largest—at least 80 hours of material—but there’s so much else, from Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, Georgia, the Bahamas. It goes on and on. Is there anything in this mass of material that’s especially dear to your heart; that you’d love to see made available?

TH: I believe that collection usage data has become a vital aspect of our work. Library of Congress web analytics reports show that 1.3 million patrons used Folklife Center digital collections last year, almost 93,000 of them looking at Lomax collections. I know that the LDA is projected at something like 40,000 visitors per year. So 130,000 digital patrons make data-driven decisions seem useful and prudent. Analysis of my reference queries over the years show that the Lomax, Hurston, and Barnicle 1935 trip to the Southeastern United States and the Bahamas is in high demand so that would be my top priority. But given that all of the Lomax recordings are now digitized and we have both the AFC and LDA platforms available I opine that we have passed the dreaming stage and can move toward the reality of placing all of the Lomax materials online.

Thanks again, Nathan, for two decades of partnership!

Click on the player below to view Nathan’s 2015 Library of Congress talk about Alan Lomax.

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