This story is part two of a series about unique jobs in Washington. Some jobs are necessary for the city to function or require a special set of skills,but all are cogs in the wheel that makes Washington tick.
WASHINGTON – Soft flute music floats out of a boom box nestled between piles of CDs in Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford’s office in the Library of Congress. Pictures of violins and flutes,books,paperwork and an instrument or two cover nearly every surface in the cozy basement space in the James Madison Memorial Building,a not-so-subtle tribute to the work of the library’s musical instrument curator.
“I’m mommy to many,many thousands of flutes and other instruments,” Ward-Bamford,51,said.
Ward-Bamford played and taught the flute before she worked at the library. After getting a master’s degree in flute performance,a teacher inspired her to attend library school. She started working as a technician at the Library of Congress 21 years ago and became the musical instrument collections curator in 2004.
“I’m sure I’ve got a PhD in there somehow from all of this,” Ward-Bamford said.
The Library of Congress’ Music Division began in 1896,but traces its roots to Thomas Jefferson’s 13 books on music theory and literature that became part of the original library. The library has since amassed music,letters,books and objects to create largest music library in the world,with more than 22 million items in the collection,Music Division Chief Susan Vita said.
Musical instruments joined the Music Division in 1935 when Gertrude Whittall donated five instruments by Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari,on the condition that they would be played for the public. Each year from September to May,the library hosts free concerts,sometimes featuring a Stradivarius.
In addition to looking through reference material,researchers can examine or play the instruments,an aspect of the library not many people recognize,Ward-Bamford said.
“Sometimes I think that I first have to explain why there are musical instruments at the library,which is not really an intuitive thing,” Ward-Bamford said. “It’s like a little bit more than a library and a little bit less than a museum here.”
The collection’s visitors come by appointment to play certain instruments,study them or copy them. Ward-Bamford helps people navigate the collections and answers reference questions.
Vita said the curators are truly the “caretakers” of the instruments that are precious to the American people,but that the staff that cares for them is also a “treasure.”
“They bring out the importance and impact and they do the work of making it all possible for the current and future generations to appreciate it,” Vita said.
Many instruments are stored in a room next to Ward-Bamford’s office,through a door papered with clippings of cartoons featuring flutes or violins.
“OK,let’s go into the flute vault,” she said as she entered the temperature- and humidity-controlled room,so named because it houses the Dayton C. Miller flute collection.
Miller,a scientist and amateur flutist,donated the world’s largest collection of flutes and flute-related material to the library in 1941. The collection contains 1,856 musical instruments,about 10,000 pieces of music and about 3,000 books.
Ward-Bamford walked around the room filled with shelves and filing cabinets,carefully picking up or pointing to an object. She immediately began to tell its story.
“I love the sound,” she said of a viola de gamba with a scroll carved in the shape of a woman’s head,mouth open as if to sing. After it was restored,“one of the world’s best viola de gamba players,” Italian Paolo Pandolfo,came to play it and taught a master class at the library in 2011.
“And he said,‘Oh,this instrument is so beautiful. Can I come back?’” Ward-Bamford remembered. “And he came back the next year.”
On a table nearby sits an unimposing piccolo recently returned from a temporary exhibit. Through research,Ward-Bamford discovered it was played in the first performance of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” in 1897.
A call from junior fellow Bill Sullivan pried Ward-Bamford away from the flute vault. He and another fellow,Dorie Klein,finished a graduation ceremony for their 10-week summer program and wanted to get back to work on a joint project with Ward-Bamford and the Preservation Research and Testing Division. They are studying the 18 glass flutes in the collection to understand more about their composition and condition.
When they first started,Klein said it took them four hours to photograph one flute in three different types of light and under a microscope. With practice,they’ve cut that time in half. Sullivan,who attends the Catholic University of America,and Klein,who attends Smith College,both plan to continue the research as volunteers.
Sullivan,Klein and Ward-Bamford walked through the underground tunnel that connects the Madison and the Thomas Jefferson buildings to get the next flute for analysis: an instrument once owned by President James Madison. It’s one of the collection’s most precious pieces and has a “platinum” rating. Handling it and other flutes takes care.
“You can’t be nervous,because when you’re nervous you make mistakes,” Sullivan said. “You have to be cautious and confident.”
Ward-Bamford unlocked a display case in the Whittall room and carefully removed the French-made flute from its stand. It sparkled from the light of a nearby window as she placed it in a specially made box.
The curator and junior fellows waited in a nearby room for a security guard to escort them and their precious cargo to the flute vault. Ward-Bamford eased the cart carrying the flute over every bump in the floor to avoid jostling the 201-year-old instrument.
“All right,you guys. Well,I got your flute,” Ward-Bamford said as she pushed the cart into the vault,already discussing which instrument should take its place in the display. Rotating out instruments conserves them so the public can continue to see and hear them.
“That was the gift in 1935,so that the instruments aren’t held behind a door a glass cage or anything like that,” Ward-Bamford said. “That they’re out there and they can be heard. But we do have to take care of them so they can continue to be heard,and be heard for hundreds more years.”
Reach Reporter Kate Winkle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.