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Jesse Johnston on the importance of preserving history and archiving music

Jesse Johnson wears glasses, a cardigan and stands next to a bookshelf.

Monday, 04/10/2023

Jesse Johnston turned his love of music into a career in information. Currently a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, Johnston’s research focuses on sound and music archives, policies and systems around record keeping and digital collections maintenance. Before joining UMSI, he worked as a senior librarian for digital content at the Library of Congress. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your career trajectory and how you arrived at UMSI?  

I’m focused on library and information science as well as digital curation, which is what I’m teaching. I actually did my undergraduate degree in music and studied music performance. And I think sometimes people feel like that’s unexpected, but one of the things I think is really interesting about music is you learn how to hone in on a craft and how to collaborate with others. A lot of people end up going into careers like library science, archives or law — careers that require a lot of focus and attention to detail. 

After my undergraduate degree, I completed a PhD in musicology at the University of Michigan. I studied in the Czech Republic for a year and a half and did ethnographic research through a Fulbright Award. That was a great experience and I did a lot of intensive language study and interviews in Czech and in English. I also studied traditional music and wrote a dissertation on the musical instrument makers of the cimbalom, which is a common folk instrument in central Europe. 

Basically people are making these instruments and there’s a long tradition of that. I also did some historical research with archival documents and recordings which dated back to the 1950s at one of the major radio stations in the country. This was actually one of the first intensive archival experiences that I’d had. 

Following that research, I started learning more about sound archiving and music archiving and learning that this is a critical area where we need more attention. 

What was your first library and archives job? 

I worked at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, cataloging the Smithsonian Folkways collection and working on library metadata formatting to update and enhance the material they had. It’s basically a library of music from all over the world and we were putting in information about the designers, the producers and the artists who were on the records. 

That job was really fun and would probably be a job I’d still be doing if it hadn’t been a term position. It was an amazing experience. You get to deal with people who are making records as well as people who are researching the historical aspects of those records.  

Where did you transition to after your role at the Smithsonian ended?

I got a job at the National Endowment for the Humanities. I worked there as a program officer in preservation and access and helped manage and make funding decisions on programs related to libraries, archives and museums. I had a portfolio of about a million and a half dollars on average annually and was running grant reviews for those programs. 

Jesse johnston in the hatcher stacks
Jesse Johnston

I also helped set up a community archiving program which gave access of archived material to community organizations, public libraries, historical societies and museums. Essentially it was a unique program in that it combined public programs and digitization activities. It was really essential in helping communities not just engage with historical material but actually tell the stories of those materials, many of which included oral history activities. 

I did that job for five years before transitioning to the Library of Congress and now UMSI. 

What inspired you to come back to the University of Michigan after earning your PhD here and being gone for so long? 

I have family in Michigan and the midwest, and being closer to family was one of the draws. In fact, although I was born in the Southwest, I grew up partly in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and also studied at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, and so the location was a draw. I’d also been adjuncting for the University of Maryland’s iSchool and had taught a course in archives at George Mason University. So when the opportunity to teach at UMSI came up, it met a personal goal of being closer to family while also expanding my teaching experience. There’s a research component, but I also really love teaching and it feels fulfilling. 

What are you currently working on and researching now? 

There are two projects that I’m excited about right now. One is exciting in a kind of wonky way and the other is exciting in an impactful way, I think. One is basically how to make people's relationships and access to historical collections more valuable. Especially audio collections that haven’t been digitized. The Library of Congress is a good example of this — they have probably one of the world’s largest collections of digitized audio recordings but it’s complicated to make that available online for reasons like copyright restrictions, infrastructure and bandwidth, and the sheer magnitude of the collections. And I’m excited in my work to improve access to materials like that. 

The other project is I was a co-author on an article with David Wallace and Ricky Punzalan. In 2016, the national archives in the U.S issued a new policy on how they’re going to manage email archives. You can imagine the volume of email that the federal government produces is huge and though we have better policies for preserving it, there are still a lot of challenges. I think it’s incredibly important because all of us need to be sure that the government is producing records to document its activities that we’ll be able to analyze for historical purposes in the future. 

It’s very policy focused, and despite all the talk about web archiving and email archiving, materials are definitely being lost and we need reliable ways to find them in five, ten, even 50 years. 

What courses are you currently teaching? 

Right now I’m teaching Information Organization Resources and that is in the library and archives digital curation track. We talk a lot about how information gets described as well as how it gets organized. Right now we’re discussing bibliographic metadata and the history of library cataloging. I’m also teaching Networked Services for Libraries, Archives, and Museums, which has been really fun; it’s on the smaller side, which permits a lot of interaction and discussion, and at the same time the students are building digital collections using all of the important technical skills we’re teaching here at UMSI, including Python coding, setting up servers and software to publish content to the Web, and working to transform and assess metadata for digital collections using those tools. 

What do you love most about teaching?

Jesse holds a floppy disk reader
Johnston teaches about using digital forensics techniques for accessing and preserving data stored on legacy media during SI-667, Foundations of Digital Curation.

So far, I’ve really loved being at UMSI and seeing how much students are engaging with the material.  There’s a real connection with ideas that I appreciate. I also like interactive classroom activities and being responsive to what students seem to be interested in and talking about. 

I love when students have a passion to engage with ideas. I’ve been teaching in one capacity or another for 14 years, and when students engage with ideas, it makes the classroom experience so much better. I think there’s an element of curiosity and openness that’s energizing. 

Tell us something unexpected about you. 

Hmmm. Let’s see. I like gardening, and I like the opportunities for cross-country skiing here in Michigan too. I’ve been watching the new Lord of the Rings “Rings of Power” Series. I have two cats and two dogs. I enjoy watching and reading British murder mystery series. 

Favorite murder mystery? 

Lately, I was into this new character Matthew Venn, who is a detective created by Ann Cleeves. I kind of found it from the Vera series, which I think I’ve watched all of the seasons that have been made available in the US, and I’ve even read a few of the books by Ann Cleeves. Anyway, Venn is one of the only LGBT lead characters in this genre, and it was really great to see that. Plus it’s a good series, and also has been dramatized for TV. 

Anyway, if it’s a Friday night, I’m probably going to have a glass of wine and watch one of these murder mysteries. The thing is, you know what’s going to happen. That’s the comforting element, right? You know there’s going to be a murder, you know everyone’s going to scream but then you also know it’s going to be solved. 


Learn more about Jesse Johnston by visiting his faculty profile