Five Questions with Christopher Hartten, Archivist in the Music Division

This post is written by Christopher Hartten of the Library of Congress.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with as part of your day to day activities.

Christopher Hartten

As an archivist in the Music Division, I am fortunate to put my hands on historical documents every day for the purpose of eventually putting them into yours, either by showcasing them in person, sharing them through interactive digital exhibits, or indirectly highlighting them by facilitating the scholarship of other patrons. There is nothing quite as extraordinary as sifting through the papers of great artists in music, theater, or dance and gradually gaining insight into the genius of their work. I cannot even begin to count the number of hats I wear on any given day. It is not uncommon to find myself processing collections, assisting researchers, orienting volunteers, or performing preservation work – all in the span of several hours!

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

Leonard Bernstein’s sketches for “Cool” from West Side Story are among my favorite online materials, not just because they are incredibly cool, but because they represent one tiny piece of the history of this fantastic musical production for which we have so many materials here in the Music Division. Pair this manuscript with our rehearsal photographs from the original 1957 production in the Bernstein Collection, original set designs from the Oliver Smith Papers, and all sorts of other collection materials, and you’ll find yourself humming a tune and wandering down Broadway in no time.

Alice in Wonderland Theater Poster. 1938

Share a time when an item from the Library’s collections sparked your curiosity.

Stumbling upon something old and cryptic is an almost daily occurrence at the Library. Some number of years ago, while working on materials for the Federal Theatre Project, I came across upwards of fifteen dusty wooden chests branded with official U.S. government seals, an image highly reminiscent of the warehouse scene from the closing minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The chests contained pristine scripts submitted to the influential program between 1935 and 1939, many of which found their way into one of our most valuable resources for the study of American plays and twentieth-century costume design.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a patron, K-12 teacher, or student.

There have been plenty of memorable encounters over the years, but my favorite patrons have been my visiting family members. It is often difficult to convey just what exactly I do and how incredible our collections are without seeing things first hand. Bringing out our Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz scrapbooks and George Gershwin’s manuscript score for Porgy and Bess really hit home for my mother. Seeing in a new way those iconic figures and music that shaped your childhood or career is just such an awesome experience.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with, the Library’s collections, or about the Library?

If there is one thing that can be said of materials in the Music Division, or anywhere in the Library for that matter, it is that they truly touch our unique personal histories in some way. Whether you want to delve into the past or merely acquaint yourself with it, there is something here for enthusiasts of all ages. And just because we are America’s library does not mean that we confine our collections to American history. The depth of our international collections and foreign language materials is simply staggering!

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