Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 1999 Volume XXI Number 3

Opening the Vault

The staff at the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University Bloomington is used to getting requests from scholars for access to archive holdings. With more than 250,000 hours of recorded music and countless manuscripts, photographs, films, and early recording devices in its subterranean vault, researchers from as far away as South Africa and Japan routinely contact the archives about making the trek to middle America. So when scholars contacted Gloria Gibson, the archives' director and an associate professor of Afro-American Studies at IUB, about reviewing some newly deposited African materials, it should have been business as usual. Except for one thing.

Gloria J. Gibson, associate professor of Afro-American studies and director of the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University Bloomington, holds a poster with a picture of Laura Boulton, an ethusiastic music collector, who is recording the Tuaregs in Timbuktu. Gibson is at Hoagy Carmichael's piano, part of the archives' collection. --credit
"The collection is currently in more than 200 boxes, some of which are stored over at IU's warehouse," Gibson says, smiling at the embarrassment of riches. Svend Holsoe, a professor emeritus of anthropology from the University of Delaware who has written numerous books and articles on Liberia, chose to deposit his invaluable collection of research--conducted primarily in Liberia--at IU's prestigious archives, and so those 200-plus boxes hold sound recordings, photographs dating back to the turn of the century, maps, and what may be the only extant copies of many government documents. "His collection is massive. It will probably take us several years to catalog all the material," Gibson says. That is why outside researchers' eagerness to see the material, while understandable, is a tad premature.

"We would prefer to have the material properly accessioned," Gibson says. But because that's going to take awhile--and because one scholar who has research already in progress has talked to Holsoe and has secured not only his blessing but an idea of where in those boxes she might find the materials she needs--at least one intrepid explorer has been given the go-ahead to delve into the material.

"The importance of archives--for me, anyway--is history. I've always been struck by their timeless quality. They blend, in a most exciting way, the past and the present. Archives serve as repositories of histories: formal and informal, personal and societal." But preservation is only half the archives' purpose, observes Gibson, who is also assistant director of the Black Film Center/Archive. "There has to be a balance between preservation and outreach. I believe in making sure the materials are made accessible to the general public as well as scholars and intellectuals." And, of course, classes. People teaching folklore, anthropology, Afro-American, and African studies all make use of the voluminous holdings of the Archives of Traditional Music for undergraduate and graduate instruction.

This commitment to outreach has also given rise to a project which just secured for the archives a $145,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. That money will fund the completion of a new CD-ROM, "The Straus Expedition: Musical Instruments of West Africa." In 1934, financed by money from the Straus family, Laura Boulton (1899-1980), an enthusiastic collector of African musical data and instruments, traveled through West Africa amassing film and audio footage upon which she based a series of multimedia lectures back in the United States. Using the CD-ROM--which already exists in prototype form--students will be able to navigate materials from Boulton's collection coupled with more contemporary musical examples to make discoveries about and connections between West African musical traditions and their cultural contexts.

The CD-ROM's holistic approach to music is important to Gibson. "It's different from other CD-ROMs on the market," she observes. "It presents the story of musical instruments as a part of cultural and social history instead of just showing instruments with brief musical excerpts."

In addition to developing the CD-ROM, the archives are partners with the African Studies Program--along with several African institutions and other units at IUB--on a new project, part of a $150,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. This grant focuses on documenting Africa's oral heritage as understood through music, interviews, and poetry. And on the heels of that substantial grant came yet another one, subsidizing the digitizing of the music and related materials of songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and distributing it via the Internet.


As the archives enters its fifty-first year (it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in October) and looks toward the next millennium, Gibson would like to pursue other projects which, like the CD-ROM and Carmichael projects, have the potential to allow the archives' copious offerings to reach more people. "We're dedicated to preserving and disseminating the music treasures of the world's peoples," Gibson says. "Combining traditional music and technology, in diverse formats, is one means by which to showcase one of Indiana University's most important resources."

That's no small feat. But with its international reputation and dedicated staff, the Archives of Traditional Music are poised to achieve great things. And why shouldn't they be? As Gibson says, "After all, we have access to a most precious cultural resource - world music." --Eric Pfeffinger

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