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An Interview with Michele Chisholm, Copyright Licensing Specialist

Today’s interview is with Michele Chisholm, a copyright licensing specialist at the U.S. Copyright Office and the current president of the Library of Congress chapter of Blacks in Government (BIG).

 

Describe your background.

Michele Chisholm

Michele Chisholm

I am a native Washingtonian, who grew up in the segregated South during the peak of the civil rights movement. My father was an electrician with GSA, and my mother was a nurse. My grandmother was a cafeteria worker.  And until the time she was 80-years old, she drove voters who did not have their own cars to the polls. Her grandfather, Alexander Thompson, founded the Thompson Institute.  This was the first teacher’s college for blacks, and it was located in Lumberton, North Carolina. The story goes that he lied to his owners about his ability to read in order to keep his then 19 children (out of 29) from being sold into slavery and to also be able to keep the gift of 40 acres of land that he had been given by the Price/Thompson family in order to build a church.  Although owned as a slave, his owners didn’t enslave him, nor his father before him, because they didn’t believe in enslaving preachers.

As a child of the South, I grew up pretty fancy free in a middle class all-black neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina where all the business owners in my part of town looked like me. As North Carolina moved closer to desegregating, I heard rumors of cross burnings in our neighborhood playground where my friends and I often played. I remember “white only” signs posted in restaurants during a trip my father and I took to Chapel Hill–and his anxiety as I continued to complain about my hunger pains. I still remember the wailing of my teachers, as I sat in my 6th grade classroom the day Dr. King was assassinated and the curfews that were enforced as a result.

Around 1969, I was designated to be in the first class to desegregate a local junior high school.  Instead my mother sent me back to D.C. and enrolled me in parochial school, where I participated in my first protest. All I remember about the protest was that there were about 20 kids in school uniforms and three nuns carrying signs–and walking in a circle in front of the District Building shouting about something. It made the newspapers, but they exaggerated and said there were 40 of us in an angry mob.

I mention protests because I am a proud graduate of Anacostia High School’s class of 1974 where I was president of the student government. Former Mayor Marion Barry, who was then president of the school board, presented me with my diploma which was hilarious to me at the time because as a student I used to testify at school board meetings and protest outside of Mr. Barry’s office. Remember the sit-ins?

What is your academic/professional history?

 I am an alumnus of Bennett College, Howard University, and life. Before coming to the Library I worked for several government agencies, as well for a private industry company that would later be purchased by a Fortune 500 company.

How would you describe your job to other people?

For the past 21 years, I have worked as a licensing specialist in the U.S. Copyright Office, Information Section of the Licensing Division. The Licensing Division is responsible for helping to administer the various statutory licenses and similar provisions, including the secondary transmissions of radio and television programs by cable and satellite systems; making and distributing phonorecords of nondramatic musical works; and importing, manufacturing, and distributing digital audio recording devices or media. I provide information about the compulsory and statutory licenses, maintain the division’s official licensing records, and perform reference searches of licensing documents for the public and members of Congress.

Why did you want to work at the Library of Congress?

I wish I could say it was because of its beauty, its vast collections and the many celebrities I have met here over the years. Or, that I fell in love with the place as a teen when I conducted research here for a high school English term paper, which is partially true. However, at the time that I applied, I chose to work at the Library because it was close to home which shortened my commute.

What is the most interesting fact you have learned about the Library of Congress?

Wow, great question!  That’s like asking what you love most about your mate.  There are so many facets of the Library that expand your mind and make you fall in love with it over-and-over again. I believe the most interesting fact that I have learned about the Library is that the collections come alive here. What I mean is that the Library of Congress is an experience. You don’t just open a book or a digital file as you would in most archives.  But you can interact with the creators who make the information in those books and digital files possible. Scholars can come here to teach, inform, discuss, and exchange ideas with average people. In my time here, it has been a place of prestige where at any time you could see a celebrity walk by. Limousines would often pull up outside the Madison Building. For example, I remember once I was chosen to stand outside and observe the Librarian welcome the Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. I was so close; I could see his famous birthmark on his head.  I met Diana Rigg, from The Avengers; Marian Anderson’s brother; and I observed the preparations for the arrival of Princess Diana, just to name a few.

What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?

That I dropped out of Howard University in my senior year because I didn’t want to take a mandatory swimming class.  And, though I seem to be a social butterfly, I am basically shy. I had the opportunity to be mentored by C. Deloris Tucker and Nina Simone, but my shyness held me back from both opportunities. Now having learned from my own life experience,  I work hard to encourage others not to let limitations set by others or themselves hold them back from all they have been gifted to become.

3 Comments

  1. Shameema Rahman
    February 12, 2015 at 9:15 am

    Great post Michele! I did not know we both are Howard University alumnus.

  2. Saundra Berry-Hill
    February 12, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    What an inspiring article Michele, I enjoyed reading it! You have an amazing and rich history, God bless you. I am grateful to Sabrina for sharing the article. Indeed the Anacostia High School class of 74′ was a great class. Often times I think back on those days, which were some of the best days of my life! It’s a blessing that for the most part, our classmates have remained in contact with one another over the years. The communication chain is just awesome! God bless each and everyone.

  3. Denise Eugene
    February 14, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    A wonderful story, no surprise we share a similar past of shyness ,that held us back in our youth but now set free. I am extremely proud to read your story and all that you have accomplished and that you too reach out to mentor and support others on their journey.

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