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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Small Tales

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blog-a-thon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

If I had to characterize the nature of archival work as I see it, it would be the sense of pride and purpose and curiosity we feel when we slowly make sense of past lives, coupled with regular existential crises when it's all too much.

We are overwhelmed. Surrounded by piles and folders and boxes of papers, photographs, reels of tape and too many video formats, we try to make it possible for others to see what we see--stories upon stories--in a way that makes sense.

Ever since I became an archivist, I have been interested in the little stories--the bits left over when the larger narratives have been fleshed out and told and retold. I like reading Lee Hay's letters of advice to his young neighbors, or learning that Emory Cook was almost hit by a lightning strike while recording a thunderstorm. I think I fixate on these details because in looking at the whole, as in life, it is so easy to fall into the trap of "Yes, but what does it all mean? What is it all for?"

Even the smallest, most overlooked collections have little stories to tell. When I set out to process the London Library of Recorded English records  last year, even I wasn't expecting to find much in the mere 11 folders of papers included in the boxes. Instead, I got a glimpse into the literary passions of V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, scholar, author, and, in his time, a well-known broadcaster and reader of English literature.

Together with Joseph Compton, a scholar and educationalist, Clinton-Baddeley directed a set of high-quality recordings of English literature called the London Library of Recorded English (LLRE), the first four volumes appearing in the 1940s with two subsequent volumes appearing in the mid-1960s. Clinton-Baddeley went on to found the spoken word label Jupiter Recordings, believing that: is certainly possible to understand the meaning of a poem, to read it again and again with delight, and still to miss those pleasures which are outside the meaning and beyond the range of the eye--pleasures of rhythm, of timing of echoing sounds, pleasures even of interpretation. These are things which only declare themselves when the poem is heard spoken aloud, or read aloud to oneself. (1)
Two paragraphs in a document detailing the history of the LLRE particularly caught my eye. It is the origin story of Clinton-Baddeley's idea to make commercial recordings of poetry, and those words have stuck with me ever since:
The London Library of Recorded English has a curiously long history behind it. In 1937 V.C. Clinton-Baddeley was invited to be one of the two readers in the series of poetry broadcasts organized by W.B. Yeats for the B.B.C. Yeats at that time was obsessed with a desire to restore the art of English song and the good speaking of poetry. The broadcasts led to discussions and arguments about words and their relation to music - which resulted in V.C. Clinton-Baddeley giving three illustrated broadcast talks called "Words and Music" in September, 1938, and these talks he expanded to a book which was published, under the same title, by the Cambridge University Press, in 1941. 
At the beginning of 1940, Clinton Baddeley joined an organization which prepared British propaganda on gramophone discs for the use of foreign radio stations. Cultured propaganda played an important part in this service and he made a number of recordings of English poetry, some read by himself, some by other well-known readers - Michael Redgrave for instance. Clinton-Baddeley was greatly taken by this way of using the gramophone, and often discussed with the engineers the possibility of making English literature recordings as a serious commercial undertaking - "after the war". Indeed, towards the end of hostilities he had an interview with an important man in the English gramophone industry and unfolded his ideas on the subject; but it was still wartime and the idea did not commend itself to the company.
It's perhaps not the most riveting material, but it is enough to spark an interest in this very specific time: the world is at war, and yet the desire to ensure the survival and appreciation of art in the face of such ugliness remains. When I feel trapped by the task of bringing together the threads of a life in cubic foot after cubic foot, I will tell myself this story, and the countless other small tales I've encountered, and it will all make sense.

Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

(1) The Arts Council of Great Britain. "A Programme of Poetry, Read by V.C. Clinton-Baddeley and John Glenn." Arts Council of Great Britain, 1957. Print.

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