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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Langston Hughes: For livin' he was born

Postcard from Langston Hughes to Moses Asch, undated.

The funny thing about legendary figures is that it can be easy to forget that they are still just people.
We tell stories about these individuals and reference quotes about the great things they said, until the fact that they walked the earth, had friends, and schedules to keep seems to be lost. It's not anyone's fault; legends are just so incredibly good at staying relevant that we have no choice but to name places after them and write blog posts (belatedly) honoring their birthdays, so we can continue to remember them long after they stopped walking the earth.

Letter from Langston Hughes to Marian Distler, mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, circa 1955 [?]

This is the way I think about Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902-May 22, 1967) when I go through his correspondence and related ephemera tucked in a collection filled with the breadcrumbs of so many inspiring people. The things legends leave behind help us understand what it was that made them so iconic, but they also show that they had their share of dreams and disappointments.

Langston Hughes recorded, produced, and/or participated in many albums for Folkways Records, and the Moses and Frances Asch Collection contains many years of letters, production notes, and promotional materials detailing his fruitful work with Moses Asch, the record company's director. It is clear from his letters that he and Asch had a great deal of respect for each other, but they also show that they were friends. Hughes' letters often mention his extremely busy schedule ("I'm nothing but a literary sharecropper," he jokes in a letter from March 2, 1953) and his looking forward to carving out some personal time ("Only one more out of town date this season, gracias a dios, in Massachusetts this weekend. Then I'm through traveling and can stay home and create," from a letter dated April 25, 1953). And then there's this mischievous line from a January 14, 1955 letter, "(And remind me to tell you, when I see you, why [George Washington] Carver had such a high voice)."

It is absolutely clear from these materials that he was a brilliant, endlessly talented man. I love the note he writes to Asch on the sheet music to a song he composed:

Note from Langston Hughes to Moses Asch, on sheet music for "Freedom Land," 1963-1964.

Not surprisingly, Hughes had a very clear understanding of Moe's vision for Folkways:
In November, a novel of mine called, TAMBOURINES TO GLORY, with a background of Harlem gospel churches is being published by John Day. The same month, THE BOOK OF NEGRO FOLKLORE, which I co-edited with Arna Bontemps will be published by Dodd Mead. Both of these books contain a number of gospel lyrics. Gospel songs, in my opinion, are the last wellspring of Negro folklore as expressed in words and music. So far as I know, Folkways has not recorded any gospel songs. Since this is a contemporary folk expression and a field in which I have been working intensively for the past few years, I am wondering if you would be interested in doing a long playing record with a gospel folk group...of my own gospel songs* which I have written with a talented Harlem gospel musician, Jobe Huntley.
*I heard Mahalia Jackson rehearse two of these songs of mine she likes and says she will eventually record. They really jump!
 This letter was written on September 22, 1958. The album Tambourines to Glory was recorded on October 3, 1958--an extremely rare turnaround for the consistently short-staffed Folkways Records.

All of these words help me paint a better mental picture of the man behind "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Langston Hughes--one of the first Great Poets I learned about as a child, was a real person before he was an icon, and he didn't operate in a vacuum. From the recording below, it is clear that Hughes went beyond poetry to confront the critical issues of his time (issues that, frankly, we still face today). In this excerpt from a recently digitized interview in the Asch Collection, two unidentified educators (or education specialists) speak with Hughes in his home about how to encourage creativity in schools.

The wonderful thing about archival materials is that they make it possible for us to explore history in ways books (or blog posts) couldn't possibly replicate. In these materials, Langston Hughes comes alive and shows us what it means to be born for living.

 -Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Monday, February 25, 2013

But, everything is online...right?


NMAI Archive Center Stacks
Archives around the world document human history.  They hold materials fundamental for academic and personal research on almost every subject conceivable and have long been collecting immeasurable amounts of material long before the birth of the internet.  The Smithsonian Institution, for example, was founded in 1846 with a dedication to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”.  The Smithsonian’s first website was inaugurated in 1995.  That leaves 149 years of collected knowledge before we even had an online presence. 

In addition to working at the National Museum of the American Indian Archives Center, I am also in graduate school.  I am often frustrated with the assumption by students that research can be done solely through the use of the internet.  The internet is a useful tool, however, it is inconceivable that over 149 years of material could be fully digitized in the 18 years since we've had the internet, let alone high-quality equipment.  Can you imagine loading a digital archive on Netscape?

A portion of the Museum of the American
 Indian, Heye Foundation Records

Never fear!  Archivists around the Institution are working tirelessly to fulfill the Smithsonian’s mission of “diffusion of knowledge” and bringing you complete and accurate digitized material.  The project that I am involved with is the digitization of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records. Over the past two years we have digitized 51 boxes of manuscript material, that is, more than 50,000 pages!  

Digitizing archival material is a bit more complicated than running documents through a scanner as we have unique and original material.  A few examples:

Fragile Materials: Manuscripts like this field notebook from 1896 require special care, handling, and more time when imaging.

Culturally Sensitive Materials: This is defined in different ways by members of individual tribes, ethnic groups, nations, communities,and religious denominations, but usually include materials that relate to traditional knowledge and practices.  Such materials may not be digitized.

Oversize Materials: The physical size of certain items also require additional digitizing techniques.

So, what is available online?  While large collections may not be fully digitized, we have a lot of digital resources available to help the researcher in their quest.  These online finding aids serve as a guide to the collections and provide a detailed description of the contents and arrangement of an archival collection.  After that, once a researcher gets familiar with our collections, they may make an appointment to come see us and conduct their research!

Remember, Archivists and Librarians are here to help you.   If you don’t live in the DC area, ask your local reference librarian for a place to start. As you are considering avenues of research, don’t limit yourself to what is available online, or you may be missing out on a world of knowledge.

Nichole Procopenko
Archives Scanning Technician

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: Decorative Dispatch

Carole D. Yawney Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Image has been altered to remove the sender's address.
February not only marks African American History Month but includes the 68th anniversary of Bob Marley's birth (February 6).  In the spirit of both, the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) presents this artful envelope from the Carole D. Yawney Papers featuring a Nyahbinghi drum and Ras Mortimo Planno, the Rasta elder widely regarded as Marley’s spiritual mentor. The artist, Nicolas Derouet, eventually changed his last name to "Planno" to honor the elder. These kinds of artistically aestheticized envelopes/letters are not uncommon in Rastafari culture and employ iconic imagery related to Ethiopian royalty, Africa, the Bible, nature, and dreadlocks as part of how Rastafari culture travels and reproduces itself. The NAA holds extensive Rastafari materials including photographs, posters, ephemerals, sound recordings of music and spoken word, and videotape created or collected by Carole D. Yawney and George E. Simpson—the first scholar to publish about the Rastafari movement in Jamaica.

— Adam Minakowski, Reference Archivist, National Anthropological Archives and Jake Homiak, Department of Anthropology Collections and Archives Program Director

Friday, February 8, 2013

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: Photo Identification from Twitterverse

Montezuma Cypress in Chapultec Park. January 1937. Edward Van Altena, colorist.
Each week, we feature an image from the Archives of American Gardens on the Smithsonian Gardens Facebook and Twitter accounts and occasionally, we post an unidentified image from the collections. Yesterday, we posted the above image of a majestic tree somewhere in Mexico. Thanks to our very helpful Twitter followers, we now have a positive identification -- a Montezuma Cypress (also known as Ahuehuete of Moctezuma, El Sargento or Centinela), located in Chapultec Park in Mexico City. Here is one of the links (from Flickr) which confirmed the identification of the tree, which is sadly now a mere shadow of its former glory. 

See more unidentified treasures in the archives, please visit our Mystery Gardens page. 

Kelly Crawford
Museum Specialist
Smithsonian Gardens

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Staff Picks: A Celebration of our 500th Post

Three years ago, we launched this blog to bring you closer to the vast and varied archival and library collections of the Smithsonian. Our materials tend not to get the attention that is lavished on some of their more sparkly colleagues (I'm talking to you, ruby slippers) but we're here to change that. From anthropology in Andalusia to the zoology of topiaries, you name it, we've blogged about it. We recently reached a milestone, our 500th blog post, so in celebration we rounded up a few of our favorite posts from the past three years. If this is your first introduction to our blog, then welcome! We hope you'll stick around for the next 500.

A is for Anthropology, Anarchy and Andalusia
Real-life Sons (and Daughters) of Anarchy, written by Human Studies Film Archive intern Amelia Raines, highlights the importance of not only one particular filmmaker and collection at HSFA, but also the role the archive serves as a keeper of cultural memory. It discusses how the works of anthropologist Jerome Mintz have aided the Andalusian community of Casas Viejas in the search for their own historical record. Raines explains how films and film outtakes housed at HSFA can further educate both Casas Viejas residents and others in the anthropological field on the history of this culturally significant, yet under-documented community.

B is for Banana Beer
My favorite post is What's Cooking at the Archives: Good to the Last Drop by Jennifer Murray of the National Anthropological Archives. It combines some of my favorite subjects: food culture, fermentation, and beer. Jennifer's fascinating explanation of the process, in addition to the selected scans of Ethel Mary Albert's slides of beer making in Burundi, Africa, make this post stand out for me. It has certainly made me think twice before claiming I've made anything "from scratch." It reminds me of something Carl Sagan wrote in his book Cosmos: "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." To make banana beer from scratch, you must first place "ripening bananas in a pit heated with smoke for no less than five days." The next time I buy a head of cabbage, slice it, salt it, and throw it in a store-bought crock to ferment for a month (without any help from me), I'll try to refrain from feeling smug about my DIY ethic. 
-- Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Special Collections

C is for Capeless Crusaders
I am partial to Lorain Wang’s post about Brain Boy, the short-lived comic about a telekinetic superhero. At first I was curious why this item was owned by the National Anthropological Archives, but that mystery is explained by the fact that Brain Boy's alter ego is mild-mannered anthropology student Matt Price, recruited by a branch of the Secret Service operating under the name "Organization of Active Anthropologists." Librarians (myself included) love to tout the fact that Batgirl was a librarian by day, and I hope the anthropology community got the same boost from learning about Brain Boy!  
-- Bettina Smith, Archives of American Art    

D is for Double Dutch
One of my favorite posts is A Hop, Skip and a Jump by Mark White of the Human Studies Film Archives. I love posts that highlight the unexpected in collections, and really, who would think that the Human Studies Film Archives would have an educational film on rope skipping? The irresistible combination of the narration, music, choreography, and adorable kids made me instantly fall in love with this film. In addition to expanding my jump rope repertoire, what’s also great about this post is the way Mark places the film in the context of the history of documentary filmmaking.

-- Lorain Wang, National Anthropological Archives 

F is for Fine Facial Hair
A quick but entertaining read, my favorite post is Cecilia Peterson’s Sneak Peek from the Stacks highlighting the creative facial hair of folk singer Bob Ross. I think this was first posted on an afternoon in the middle of what was turning into a long week. Cecilia’s post was a nice break from the day since the attached links gave me a chance to check out the Smithsonian Folkways website.
-- Rachel Brooks, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Photograph Archives

M is for Morris and Marcella
I nominate Morris Louis: Looking Through the Eyes of Love. It's a great human interest story about a somewhat enigmatic artist. True stories about artists in love are pretty irresistible.
-- David Haberstich, National Museum of American History - Archives Center 

S is for Soft Drink Slang
My favorite post is I Call it Pop, You call it Soda by Kayla Burns, a former Archives of American Gardens intern. We asked Kayla to write a post that would explain “public tagging” to those new to the subject and this was the result. To date, it is one of the Top Ten most read posts on the blog! Since Kayla’s original posting, the Archives of American Gardens has made a big push to encourage people to tag select images in the collection starting with last October’s hugely successful “Take Ten Minutes to Tag” initiative for American Archives Month.
-- Kelly Crawford, Archives of American Gardens 
Z is for Zoo of Topiary Critters 
Kayla Burns, former intern at the Archives of American Gardens and clearly a very promising writer, also composed my favorite post: A Topiary Zoo. In this post Kayla summarizes the age-old practice of pruning bushes into animal figures and other outlandish shapes. I hadn’t realized that the use of topiary in gardens has been in and out of fashion and a theme of intense aesthetic debate. Are topiary animals charming, accessible, and cool additions to a garden, or kitschy and lacking in grandeur? Personally, I think these herbaceous critters are wonderful, just like Kayla’s blog post!





Monday, February 4, 2013

P.S. Write Soon!

Volunteers at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, have learned that every collection tells a story, whether they’re sorting through boxes of old photographs, business records, cookbooks, or sheet music. They recently worked together on a project – the Sandford Card Company Records and Family Papers – that yielded not one but many stories. The collection includes business records, greeting card samples, correspondence, diaries, photographs and other personal items from the family of Mary Elizabeth Sandford, who founded a greeting card company in 1906. Dating from 1861 to 2004, the materials chronicle changing times and several generations in the life of an American family. The Archives Center’s volunteers often took time out to show off their favorite discoveries or read aloud first-hand accounts of births, marriages, deaths, wartime combat, friends who struck out for “the Dakota territory” and the thrill of a home newly lit with electric lamps. They share here their favorite highlights from the collection:

Sandford Women Sitting on a Hill
After days of reading letters Anne Jones found one she knew was worthy of the attention of the group. “Well, Kate, here we are four miles from the doomed city of Savannah…” wrote William Sandford to his aunt on December 18, 1864. This twenty-year-old soldier in Sherman’s army proceeded to describe in vivid detail the places, people, and even the animals he saw during the famous “March to the Sea.” Despite his excitement at the prospect of the victory to come, he remembered to mention the ten dollars he would be sending to his younger brother, Charlie.
Theresa Worden took special pleasure in creating custom housing to protect and store many of the two and three-dimensional objects found in the collection. Her favorite was a sink mat to hold a small leather purse. “The little beauty was well worn; the leather of its accordion-style pockets was supple from age and use. The contents of the purse were intriguing and helped reveal the identity of the owner as Mary Elizabeth Sandford.”

First page of letter from William Sandford to his Aunt Kate, December 18, 1864
A handwritten receipt for twenty dollars was dated May 3, 1878, making the purse and its contents at least 130 years old. Mary Elizabeth Sandford purchased some items from a dry goods store, including a pair of gloves, hosiery and four collars at Spinning Uhl & Company in Dansville, New York. She spent $1.38 on the items. There were also five “calling cards,” each engraved with a single name, evidence of social etiquette in practice. “You really can learn something from a woman’s purse!”


The receipts and calling cards are preserved with the purse they were hidden in for so many years, residing in transparent sleeves built into the custom sink mat.

Nancy Beardsley found that like every family, the Sandfords experienced their share of sadness and tragedy. “They described their losses with such heartfelt emotion that I found myself grieving along with them. I was especially moved by the correspondence of Mary Elizabeth’s sister Emma Jane Kennedy, who sent home lighthearted reports about her new life as a student nurse in upstate New York, and like many young people, was scolded by her relatives for not writing more often.” Then came an 1883 letter from a family member saying “Our girl is gone, gone, gone.” Still in her early twenties, Emma had apparently been struck down by a sudden illness. The letter went on to recount how bravely she faced her final hours. It was a reminder of how precarious life could be in an age when serious illnesses were much harder to treat than they are today. “I was also impressed by how difficult it must have been to weather a crisis without access to telephones and computers,” Nancy added. Another family member learned of her sister’s death in 1862 through a brief telegram that began simply “Carrie is dead. Come to Trenton.”

Home Just Before Christmas, photoprint, 1915
Marian Tatum-Webb chose to work on the personal papers of Helen Sandford (McDowell), who had a rather large assortment of postcards. “I have always enjoyed looking at postcards, so when I came across ones made of genuine leather in the Sandford Collection I was intrigued.” Helen Sandford received a number of leather postcards, many in 1906. The postcards included a picture of the Statue of Liberty, and numerous others that were whimsical. “As you can imagine, these postcards have held up very well over the years,” Marian noted.

Postcards on leather, 1906

The Sandford correspondence reveals how important it was to the family to stay in touch. Their letters were often many pages long, and they sometimes began by noting how much time had elapsed since they’d last written. Their company notebooks even include samples of cards reminding recipients that they haven’t been heard from for a long time, and that a note would be greatly appreciated. They seemed as preoccupied with their handwritten notes as we are now with e-mail and texting.

Postcard, 1911

John Joseph Sandford, who left his East Coast home in the early 1900s to study engineering in Rolla, Missouri, provided evidence of something else that hasn’t changed over the years. His letters were filled with pleas for money, mostly sums of $25.00. Other than the small amounts, the letters could have come from any college student today.

Postcard, 1909

Nancy Beardsley commented, “I was struck by how well the writers expressed themselves regardless of age or education. The time and care they devoted to communicating with one another seemed perfectly fitting for a family that founded a greeting card company.”

Man and woman filling orders at Sandford Greeting Card Company, photoprint, ca. 1910

Friday, February 1, 2013

Fiesta, Fiesta in the Elayne Zorn Collection

On February 2nd 1989, anthropologist Elayne Zorn walked through the city of Puno, Peru equipped with her camera and recording device.  Every February, at an elevation of 12,556 feet, the Andean city is host to the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria, or Candlemas which is considered one of the largest festivals in South America.  Candelaria draws hundreds of dance groups and tourists every year to Puno, a city and region Zorn was very familiar with. Zorn spent many years and much of her professional career as a museum collector and anthropologist in the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia. Although it was her interest in textiles and traditional weaving techniques that first brought Zorn to the Island of Taquile in Peru, she was also a musician and took a great interest in festivals.

Personally, I am also interested in festivals. Having studied and participated in street performance in the past I can say there is nothing quite like the thrill of an outdoor crowd. So as I was processing her collection I was immediately drawn to Zorn’s many photographs and audio recordings of the fiestas she attended. Many of the recordings Zorn made feature traditional Andean instruments including the charango, a stringed instrument, sikus, pan pipes and quenas, flute like instruments pictured below. 

Photo by Elayne Zorn. Puno, Peru, 1989. Elayne Zorn collection, Box 47 (S16285)

As a textile enthusiast, Zorn took hundreds of photographs of the traditional outfits worn by both woman and men on festival days.  Zorn writes in her book, Weaving a Future, that audiences at major Puno folklore events would distinguish Taquileans by their clothing, “which tells runa and mestizos the performers’ community of origin.”  (Page 51)

Photo by Elayne Zorn. Puno, Peru, 1989. Elayne Zorn collection, Box 47 (S16277)

Zorn’s collection came to the National Museum of the American Indian as a donation by her son and included both objects and archival materials.  The archival material, measuring about 11 linear feet and containing tens of thousands of photographic objects including negatives, slides and prints as well as audio and video cassettes, documents Zorn’s professional and student activity from 1975 until 2010. In addition to attending festivals, Zorn developed a long association with the community in Taquile,  and spent a significant amount of time conducting field research in Andean communities in Bolivia examining the relationships between tourism and textiles.

Photo by Elayne Zorn. Puno, Peru, 1989. Elayne Zorn collection, Box 47 (S16259)

The Elayne Zorn collection is a wonderful addition to the National Museum of the American Indian archive center. If you would like to learn more about the collection, the finding aid can be accessed here or the NMAI archive center can be reached at

~Rachel Menyuk, Archive Technician NMAI Archive Center