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

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). //hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/afc193001.afc1933001_ms155

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.


John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers now online

This is a guest blog post by Todd Harvey, a Reference Librarian and curator of the Lomax collections at the American Folklife Center. The American Folklife Center announces long-awaited digital access to a tranche of Lomax family correspondence. It follows similar treatment for the Bess Lomax Hawes collection and the Alan Lomax collection. Most of […]

Caught My Eye: Keepsakes of Motherhood from Bess Bauman Brown Lomax

Although the Library of Congress is temporarily closed to the public and staff are, as possible, working from home, the work of the Library continues. It is heartening to see that one of the most labor intensive areas of work, putting archival collections online, continues in spite of the precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic. The […]

Podcast: Episode 17, on Transcribing Lomax with By the People, is Ready for Listening!

Episode seventeen of the Folklife Today Podcast (or Season 2, Episode 5) is ready for listening! In the episode, John Fenn and Stephen Winick talk about a campaign called “The Man Who Recorded the World: On The Road with Alan Lomax.” It’s an effort to crowdsource transcriptions Alan Lomax’s fascinating field notes. Through this campaign, you can help out the Library of Congress and music fans worldwide by increasing access to Lomax’s field notes through transcribing and reviewing pages. Anyone can get involved at the link provided in the blog. The podcast and blog feature music from throughout Lomax’s career as well as descriptions of his notes.

Lomax Birthday Challenge!

This guest post from Todd Harvey, AFC reference staff member and Alan Lomax collection curator, is part of a short series related to the Library’s crowdsource platform and the campaign we helped launch in September 2019 focused on the extensive holdings AFC has of Lomax manuscript materials. The American Folklife Center wishes a happy birthday […]

Update: Lomax transcription review challenge

At the start of this month we announced a “challenge” for the Lomax crowdsourcing campaign on the Library’s By the People platform. To refresh your memory, the campaign is focused on transcribing about 9000 pages of handwritten and typed Alan Lomax manuscripts. The ultimate goal is to create machine-readable electronic text versions of Lomax’s materials so […]

Pitch in to review crowdsourced Lomax transcriptions!

Back in September, the American Folklife Center helped launch a crowdsourcing campaign focused on transcribing about 9000 pages of handwritten and typed Alan Lomax manuscripts. This campaign is running on By the People, the crowdsourcing platform developed by the Library of Congress. The ultimate goal is to create machine-readable electronic text versions of Lomax’s materials […]

AFC accelerates its efforts to preserve analog media

This is a guest post by American Folklife Center archivist Maya Lerman. Staff in the American Folklife Center archive finished a project that will improve our efficiency in preserving and making accessible AFC’s rich audiovisual collections. Like audiovisual archives everywhere, AFC is working to prepare for a time when obsolescence and degradation of physical media will greatly hinder preservation efforts. We […]