An update from 2018 AAA Intern Sam Ropa:
I have always felt at home in libraries. Most academics relate to this feeling—the one that only comes when one is surrounded by stacks of books, surrounded by quiet thoughts. For some, the feeling is triggered by that ‘old book’ smell; that faint scent of vanilla that only good libraries acquire. Some come to libraries as researchers, and require the organized knowledge that libraries can provide. Still others come as parents and families looking for community programming, a cultural event, a summer reading list. (And sure, some come as anthropologists, burying themselves in Boas, Mead, Hurston, and Sahlins, or falling down the JSTOR rabbit hole). This internship with the American Anthropological Association is bringing me back to libraries in unexpected, exciting ways through my position at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
At the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage I am working on a cultural exchange program which is facilitating a creative dialogue between curators and interns at the Smithsonian, and artist groups in West Bengal. The artists, four musicians and one pattachitra (cloth scroll) painter have now been the US for several weeks, presenting at Folklife Festival, the Library of Congress and in Philadelphia. My job has been to coordinate and staff their events, which affords me lots of time with the artists. We spend our breaks and down time talking about our homes and learning Bengali words and phrases (calō, or “let’s go” has become popular among the interns). The musically-inclined interns have jam sessions with the musicians, who patiently teach us good ektara technique. A former woodwinds player myself, this one-stringed, lute-like instrument was a fun challenge. The exchange culminated in a Bengali cultural day at the Arlington Central Library, where community members, librarians, and artists gathered to listen to Bengali folk songs, view pattachitra paintings, and eat singara (a fried pastry with spiced potato filling, similar to a samosa). Surrounded by smiling Arlington residents, I was reminded of the role libraries play in facilitating cultural dialogues. Good anthropological work could happen in the library without cracking open books or laptops.
Since the artists’ departure, I have been treated to one of the CFCH’s special privileges: a behind-the-scenes tour of the Library of Congress. Led by Jim Deutsch, a veteran researcher of the Center, the tour included all of the major reading rooms, a conversation with the top archivists at the American Folklife Center, and an extensive history lesson on the buildings and their resources. As we concluded the tour in the Renaissance-style Great Hall of the Jefferson Building, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a special place. Not because of the sweeping archways and gold-leaf accents and white-marble-everything—although the architecture alone are enough to impress. “It should feel very special because it is very special,” our Librarian of Congress has said, because special things happen here. Concerts, dialogues, exchange, information access, meaning-making; all these, profoundly cultural, activities are what libraries mean.
Maybe that’s why this anthropologist feels so at home in them.
Weekly highlights: Learning to (poorly) strum the ekara; Eating at Falafel Inc. in Georgetown; Passing my congressman as he exited the Metro; Watching 4 pm DC downpours from the AAA office.
The AAA Internship Program is funded through generous contributions from our members. To make a donation and support the future of this program visit the AAA website.