The interview for this job wasn’t even an interview. Assistant archivist Carrie Schwier sat me down in a conference room and told me the position was mine if I wanted it. Even for part-time summer work, that’s a pretty smooth ride. I suppose that my academic background was convincing enough for the task at hand. I am a folklorist, and University Archives and Records Management has a backlog of folklore collections ready for processing. I had been referred by a colleague, also a folklorist, who attested that even though I have no library science training, I “know about folklore,” and am “smart.” Boy, what she doesn’t know.
Nonetheless, I’ve reaped the benefit of my colleague’s testimony for about a month now. Carrie hired me on, and I have spent my days elbow deep in the history of my home department, Folklore and Ethnomusicology. The bulk of my work has been with a series of special projects undertaken between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, a period of tremendous intellectual momentum. Having already distinguished itself by granting the first Folklore Ph.D. in the United States in 1953, and by graduating a number of respected folklorists who took faculty and professional positions across the country and abroad, the department went on to become a moneymaking machine. Tens of thousands of dollars in grant money funneled in for special projects. One of these focused on the uses of ethnicity among Hungarian-Americans in the Chicago Region. Another facilitated a Bloomington-based symposium bringing together U.S. and German folklorists to discuss contemporary issues in the field. Yet another encompassed a variety of ethnographic projects focusing on Hispanic folk poetry. It is personally thrilling that the latter project directly benefited my advisor, John Holmes McDowell, as he completed research that contributed to his 2000 book Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico’s Costa Chica, which explores the uses of narrative song in a region that has historically been saddled with patterns of social conflict.
As much as they are exciting, such thrills are simultaneously humble. While IU’s folklore doctoral program has been recognized as the best in its field, according to a 2010 report by the National Research Council, the discipline of folklore studies comprises a relatively small number of academic experts. Our gaze is global, but our numbers are few relative to, say, historians or sociologists.
Yet the benefit of working in a small discipline is the spike in familiarity that occurs almost immediately upon entering it. When folklorists are few relative to other sorts of scholars, it is possible to have direct contact with a greater proportion of the most successful figures among them. In this regard, sorting through these boxes sometimes feels like flipping through a family history. I know or have met many of the people whose activities are documented here. To read about the awards they earned in past decades feels different from simply reading their publications, which can be accessed far more easily. The archival materials are rarer, and they include professional correspondence, budget documents, and fieldwork reports, sometimes written in the scholar’s own hand. These bits of data remind me that even among the veterans of our field, every project grows from a group of people with a good idea and the inclination to try to make it real. This is heartening for a doctoral candidate like myself, as I begin to wade into the perennially challenging academic job market. If I can at least hold on to my good ideas, perhaps I will be in better shape.
These notes are my attempt to explain why University Archives and Records Management is a positive resource for folklorists, and for those who want to learn more about our small but tightly-knit discipline. As I have taken pleasure in tracing the activities of my mentors, I have wished the same for others. So, come check it out. Just, uh, give me a little more time to process these collections.