“Knowing the ins and outs of how a library works and what you can use to your advantage is a very good resource. If I weren’t a musicologist, I would probably be a librarian. So I like being with dusty old books,” said Johnette Martin, one of two graduate students working with the American Music Research Center collections.
The AMRC collections are housed in Rare and Distinctive Collections in Norlin Library. The graduate students, Martin and Jessica Quah, work in these collections, helping archivist Jessie de la Cruz organize and inventory them. As of now, the AMRC has 297 collections in the library. Quah, a third year PhD candidate in the musicology department, is in her third year of working in the collections.
“It was one of my first TA appointments at the College of Music, so starting there in my first year, I've just kind of continued since then, I really enjoy the work,” she said.
She particularly enjoys helping researchers find what they need from the collections, saying, “I really enjoy seeing what we have that is helping researchers, and I also really enjoy getting to know these collections better through the lens of how they function.”
Martin, on the other hand, is brand new in the AMRC library. She started her musicology PhD program this fall, coming from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, where she also worked in the library. “Coming from UH Manoa, I was an ILL librarian, and before that, in my undergrad I was a music collection and general circulation librarian,” Martin said. “My favorite part is what we get to see and find. Some things you find and it wasn’t labeled or it was labeled wrong, and it’s just pieces of history, whether it’s pretty or it’s not, it’s just a snapshot of our society at that point in time.”
For both Martin and Quah, working in the archives has deepened their understanding of the history of Colorado, and how music has played a part in that history- sometimes in very unexpected ways.
“There's a song called ‘The Great Big Baked Potato,’ and it’s a five verse song, so this would probably have taken a good two, three minutes to perform. It’s an advertisement for railroad lines saying `hey, we now have in-carriage dining service,’” Quah said. Though the song itself is silly, the context helps people connect with the human element of the breakthrough in technology that was the railroads. Quah said, “It put me in the frame of mind to consider this region of the country as a central stopping point and as a networking point.”
This is just one example of how the thousands of pieces of music in the AMRC archives can contextualize different landmarks in the nation’s history. For the grad students working with these documents, it’s giving them an opportunity to be exposed to a whole new skillset, and to use those skills to further their ultimate goals. For Martin, that means taking note of who isn’t currently represented.
“I would like to focus on bringing more attention to different identities and how we are all represented throughout musical history,” she said. “Whether it be as other, as exotic, or if it's being appropriated, or if it’s actually accurate. That’s where my interests lie, is representation and identity.”
To students looking to be involved with working in the libraries in the future, Quah says the key is keeping an open mind.
“I think if student workers coming in have this attitude, I think we can get a lot done. I think we can fulfill a lot of the potential and the promise of the collections in the library, and we can also better understand how our libraries serve researchers and serve communities.”