Postcard from the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar: A Conversation With An Archivist

“All of my words, if not well put nor well taken, are well meant.”

Woody Guthrie (1912–1967), Coney on the Lowland Sea

 The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) offers a great the opportunity to meet fellow bibliophilic students who have come together for a few days in July to sharpen their skills. Among the librarians and academics this year was Kate L. Blalack, MLIS, CA, archivist at the Woody Guthrie Center, who kindly shared her reasons for attending.


 Prior to joining the Woody Guthrie Center since 2013, Blalack, with her self-proclaimed “eclectic background” combining work in studio art and art therapy—decided to go back to school to earn a degree in library science. Now, all her skills come to bear at the Guthrie Center.  “It seems to be the perfect place for me because Woody Guthrie worked for social justice,” says Blalack, “He was multifaceted as an artist and as a person.”

 When asked why the archive is so important, Blalack said that Guthrie played a profound role in modern American history and folk music. Guthrie used “music as a vehicle for social change, as a way of spreading the word to a large audience in the non-threatening way.” His songs “planted seeds of the change we needed to be doing as a community.”

 The Gutherie archive maintains a comprehensive collection of the musician’s writings, business papers, correspondence, photos, as well as the papers of fellow protest singer Phil Ochs. But it’s not as easy as filing papers in cabinet and moving to the next task; a major part of Blalack’s job is preserving the fragile materials.

 “Everything Guthrie wrote is on horrible paper; it’s fragile and brittle,” Blalack explains. She works to prevent “the overuse of the materials or the misuse of materials.”

 Blalack made the decision to attend CABS to deepen her knowledge of archival preservation and research. “I went for professional development, specifically to learn more about identification of rare artifacts and collection items—how booksellers use this information and vice-versa,” she says.

 Blalack found the high level of comrarderie between CABS participants invigorating. “Everyone has their strengths, and it’s interesting to see the crossroads where it all connects.” CABS faculty emphasized maintaining relationships booksellers, archivists, and collectors because, ultimately, they’re symbiotic relationships: booksellers help find and sell materials that collectors and archivists can use to fill out collections.

 Blalack concludes her thoughts about Woody Guthrie and her time at the Archive:  “There is nobody in the world like him. He was his own person, but also a messenger from far into the future: his ideas and his message are timeless. Working with the Woody Guthrie Collection, as a whole, has been a sublime experience.”

 Be sure to visit the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair in September to meet some of the CABS participants!

 Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, Deadspin, Syfy, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem.