Traditional Drama Forum - No.3 January 2002

The James Madison Carpenter Collection

One of the most exiting projects currently running in the field of folk drama is the attempt to produce a critical edition of the plays collected by James Madison Carpenter in England from 1933 to 1935. As most play researchers will know, Carpenter was in England first in 1928 as he worked on his PhD thesis on sea 'chanteys' as he called them. He then returned to England in 1929 for more collecting and, moving on from shanties, he collected ballads, songs and folk customs. In 1933 Carpenter declared an interest in folk plays and in the next two years he assembled the most extensive set of plays to have been collected from fieldwork up to that time. The James Madison Carpenter Collection was bought by the Library of Congress in 1972.

In the first phase of the project, a team led by Dr Julia Bishop of the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition at the University of Sheffield, will produce an on-line catalogue to the whole of the Carpenter Collection. In terms of the play material which is contained in the collection, this catalogue will allow of the searching in a number of ways including sub-groups of folk plays, geographical titles, the names of Carpenter's contributors and the lists of characters. A second stage will provide much more added value in the description of the plays. This may include a more sophisticated naming of geographical locations, the biographical information on contributors and the description of props and musical instruments used in play performances.

The collection is enormous. It contains some 13, 500 pieces of paper, Julia should know, she numbered all but the last 2, 000 in an heroic piece of work during a visit to the Library of Congress in August this year. This numbering was essential to the work of the catalogue team in order to provide a unique identifier for each page in the collection and Julia's work was completed by Michael Taft. In addition to the text items, the collection contains 179 Dictaphone cylinders, 220 12" discs, 40 drawings and some 1100 photographic items. Hitherto, the collection (apart from the graphic items) has been available on microfilm or, for the sound recordings, on tape listening copies. The Library of Congress, however, are now planning to digitise the whole collection and the Carpenter team's catalogue project will enhance the accessibility of the material.

Credit for this project is due to Dr Julia Bishop. She has not only put together a team of scholars to work on Carpenter's collection, but she has raised the largest sum of money ever to have been placed at the disposal of a folklore research team in England. The funding, from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, is sufficient to ensure that the first phase of this project can go ahead. This is due to be completed by the end of October 2002 and it is envisaged that the whole project will be completed in two further stages over a further period of five years. Providing that is that Julia has not lost her skills with the begging bowl!

Eddie Cass

See also the Library of Congress' web page for the Carpenter Collection.


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