Five Questions with Melanie Zeck, Reference Librarian, American Folklife Center

This post was written by Melanie Zeck, Reference Librarian at the American Folklife Center.

Image of Melanie Zeck in the Main Reading Room

Melanie Zeck. Photograph by Valda Morris

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

As a reference librarian at the Library’s American Folklife Center (AFC), I connect patrons with documentation on the lived experiences of people from around the world. By facilitating their research, I am constantly learning about our collections and how different aspects of culture intersect with each other over time and space.

The AFC’s collections are diverse in scope, in their linguistic coverage, and with respect to the actual materials contained within.

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

Yes – the Tom Hoskins collection, 1963-1967, which lists approximately 730 items related to blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966).

Hurt’s music has always piqued my interest because of his unique fingerpicking style. His renderings of “You Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley” and “Good Night Irene” are among my favorites, and I’m especially fond of his version of “I’ll Fly Away” – even though he suddenly stops playing about fifty seconds in and mumbles (on the recording) something about not knowing the rest of the song.

A few weeks before the pandemic hit, the AFC reference staff received a reference question on Hurt that necessitated an evaluation of what he looked like while performing (as opposed to what he sounded like). In the course of my research, I stumbled across the Tom Hoskins collection and its searchable finding aid. It lists a variety of materials related to Hurt —including photographs, slides, and stills featuring Hurt’s facial expressions and hands—many of which I had never seen before. I also learned from the finding aid that the Hoskins collection contains several recordings, including a 10-inch reel on which Hurt’s truncated version of “I’ll Fly Away” appears.

This recording was made in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on July 23, 1963, during the second of two sessions with discographer Dick Spottswood and AFC staff member Joe Hickerson. Hurt sang several other well-known tunes, and the resultant two-volume album Mississippi John Hurt: D.C. Blues – The Library of Congress Recordings is available in the AFC reading room and commercially. Hurt’s voice is known to many, but these archival materials offer incredible insight into his style and legacy.

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

On what would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday, my mother and I were going through her “treasures” and reminiscing about family heirlooms. We come from a long line of talented seamstresses and needleworkers, and my grandmother had organized and stored her collection of embroidered bridge cloths, lace piano covers, and tatted doilies in a Lane cedar chest. We also found a quilt, which was accompanied by a note in her handwriting, dated 1980.

My mother had long forgotten that the quilt existed, and I got curious about its pattern. In an effort to learn more, I consulted the American Folklife Center’s online collection “Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996,” which contains 410 images of quilts and 181 segments of interviews with quiltmakers.

I was absolutely captivated by the images, which come from two separate AFC Collections – Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1982/009) and the Lands’ End All-American Quilt Contest Collection (AFC 1997/011). I’ve spent quite a bit of time examining the images of different patterns: Grecian square block, turkey track block, H block, star block, and more.

I’ve even been inspired to learn how to quilt, using my grandmother’s vintage sewing machine (which is still in its original cabinet!).

Star Quilt Detail

Star Quilt detail. Quilt by Carrie Severt. Photograph by Lyntha Scott Eller. 1978

Image of quilt with small blocks surrounding a larger one.

Missouri State Winner, Lands End Quilt Contest, 1992. Quilt by Constance Finlayson

Quilt with five rows of girls in varing colors of dresses and hats

Dutch Girl Quilt. Quilt by Ila Patton. Photograph by Geraldine Niva Johnson.

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

I love talking with students (especially those in junior high). One morning before the pandemic, I came into work and encountered four eighth graders who were wandering around the ground floor of the Jefferson building, waiting for their classmates. Impressed that they were early for their class rendezvous, I invited them to the American Folklife Center for a quick tour. As we walked in, my eyes fell on our pair of reel-to-reel machines, and I immediately thought: instead of just looking around, let’s do something!

I sang for them the little song I made up when I was first learning to load reels to remind myself which way the tape was supposed to go:

“Down and under and around and through;

heft on the left, make it tight on the right!”

It’s not much of a song, really, but it’s got a catchy rhythm, and more importantly, it works! Within minutes, each of the students was able to load the machine.

I welcome all opportunities to interact with teachers and students because together, we can craft and execute lesson plans, assignments, interactive workshops, and easy-to-implement projects using a combination of one-of-a-kind resources from our archival collections and published resources (books, journals, program annotations, liner notes) that provide valuable context. Online or on site, the AFC has plenty to offer!

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

Say hello!

Drop us a line and let us know what ideas are percolating in your mind. We’ll connect you to resources that have the potential to change your life.