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Thinking like a Librarian: Reflections of a Junior Fellow

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This is a guest post by Sally Smith, 2019 Jr. Fellow in the Recorded Sound Section.

Sally Smith, 2019 Jr. Fellow.

If someone told me I would be paid to listen to music all summer and research everything there is to know about the Native American recording industry, I would have laughed.  Yet, here I am… the Library of Congress no less!

As a 2019 Junior Fellow in the Recorded Sound Section of the Library, I work on the Native American Audio project which highlights the Library’s collection of contemporary Native American music.  From researching important record labels such as American Indian Soundchiefs and Canyon Records to talking with researchers at the National Museum of the American Indian, this summer has truly been a life-changing experience.

Working in the Nation’s largest library, I am amazed by the immense physical vastness of the Library as well as the diversity of its holdings. Along with twenty-two reading and reference rooms spread throughout the Jefferson, Madison and Adams Buildings, the Library has its own cafeterias and underground tunnel connecting to the Capitol. Additionally, the Library holds items such as cuneiform tablets, the 1531 Huexotzinco Codex, and Thomas Jefferson’s library. Each of these items speaks to the myriad ways in which individuals of all cultures present and share knowledge that, through the Library’s care and attention, will continue to inspire and engage researchers from around the world.

Although my research is primarily focused on Native American cultures, I quickly realized the interconnected nature of the Library’s divisions as each contains items that speak to each other across disciplines, ethnicities, and geographies. My research took me to the Hispanic Reading Room in order to learn about the related identities of Chicano/a and Indigenous Latino. Additionally, the project uses the resources of the Prints and Photographs Division and Geography and Maps Division to understand how Western American culture historically understood and continues to view Native cultures as something belonging to the past.

My goal as a Junior Fellow, and as a student of Native American studies, is to emphasize the ways in which Native American culture, traditions, and knowledge systems influenced the founding of the United States – an influence that continues to shape this country’s identity even if unacknowledged. Particularly, the project highlights the ways in which Native American musicians blend traditional music with contemporary genres.  Before I could do this, however, I needed a crash course on the history of recorded sound. Reference librarians Bryan Cornell and Harrison Behl were really helpful in giving my co-Fellow, Brianna Gist, and me history lessons on the evolution of recorded sound beginning with the earliest sound recordings captured on wax cylinders, through the development of 45 rpm discs, 78-rpm discs, LPs, cassettes, and CDs.

Stomp Dance, Indian House Records. Recorded Sound Section.

For Native American communities, the wax cylinder provided the original means to preserve traditional songs. Later on, record labels such as American Indian Soundchiefs and Indian House Records established their own recording operations that used the latest technology to produce traditional and contemporary music for audiences either in their homes or at community gatherings. Their recordings became ways to strengthen community ties and to foster important tools of self-determination outside of mainstream Western culture. These goals are continued by contemporary labels such as Canyon Records and Sound of America Records (SOAR). In researching the industry and Native American musicians, I have come to appreciate the ways in which their music celebrates the human experience and unveils the hard truths behind the creation and maintenance of the American ethos. As Joy Harjo, the Library’s new Poet Laureate writes in her memoir Crazy Brave, “Every soul has a distinct song,” and I am continually fascinated by the stories of these poets, musicians, and activists.

Memories of Navajoland, Ed Lee Natay. Canyon Records. Recorded Sound Section.

Additionally, I needed to learn how to think like a librarian in order to create a subject guide for patrons who have an elementary understanding of Native American cultures. I quickly learned that a librarian must imagine the numerous and varying entry points that patrons use to access the Library’s holdings – either from a quick Google search or a general catalog query. As a Library newbie, I often felt overwhelmed by the catalog and could never seem to find exactly what I was looking forever. With the help of Harrison and Bryan, however, I learned to break my searches down into narrow terms. Sometimes, this meant also thinking like a cataloger who only includes the words found on the item itself.

Along with understanding how patrons access the materials, librarians must also acquire niche pools of knowledge that when called upon may provide just enough information to adequately assist their patrons. This summer, I’ve witnessed some very interesting reference questions such as a request for a specific style of African folk song that is slowly disappearing. Instantly, Bryan recalled a specific book – Hugh Tracey’s The Sounds of Africa, identifiable to him by the book’s spine color – that detailed the history of African folk music. From there, the patron could easily find what she was looking for. Slowly, I have acquired the same type of skill set. Just the other day, I immersed myself in the early recording industry of Hawaii and the history of Jawaiian music, or Jamaican Reggae infused with a Hawaiian sound. If called upon, I can now direct patrons towards the Library’s holdings of Jawaiian artists Ho’aikāne and Ledward Kaapana and the New Ikona.

While working at the Library, I am cognizant of the purposeful interactions between all divisions as their materials illustrate the distinct ways that cultures organize their traditions to form their own knowledge systems.  Often, these systems overlap and initiate dialogue between and among each division.  My goal in writing the Native American Audio Guide at the Library of Congress is to facilitate conversations between Native knowledge systems – in particular their representation through music – that shape how non-Native listeners think about their own society and culture.  As an aspiring librarian, I hope to bridge the distance between knowledge systems so that the Library of Congress and other libraries continue to speak to all people and cultures in order to reveal new understandings and connections.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to reference librarians in the Recorded Sound Research Center or Ask-A-Librarian if you have questions or are looking for a particular Native American audio recording. Recordings are available for listening at the Recorded Sound Research Center in the Madison Building of the Library.


Comments (2)

  1. So good to know that you are working on such an important project! Keep up the great work!
    Good luck!

  2. Very informative and well written. I enjoyed reading it.

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