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New Experiences in the Archives

This summer I spent a lot of time in the air-conditioned library working on a project in the X room, the archives and special collections of the Douglass library. Behind this always-locked door in the basement, there are stacks of rare books. One side of the room, however, is home to a collection of materials related to composer and professor emeritus, Robert Moevs (1920-2007, pronounced “Maves”). I was tasked with reinvigorating the collection – getting to know what it holds and updating its finding aids. As a student in musicology, I’m obviously interested in getting to know a composer and his music. However, this experience was new for me in many ways.  

New to archival work

First of all, I’m not trained in the art of archival work. Since I’m pursuing a PhD in musicology, I’m more likely to be on the other side of archival materials. However, I work at the music reference desk and understand the gravity of the mission of libraries and archives. Librarians take open and equal access to information very seriously, for the broader good of society. In that same vein, archival work is related to important values and sometimes contentious work, such as reparative description work.

The most high-profile archives of this country would likely be the National Archives. In this video, the recently retired Archivist of the United States says that the political environment of today brings new focus to the importance of records to our democracy. (Side note – check out his “What I’m reading” list. Even the AOTUS finds time for pleasure reading!). The mission of the NARA includes the statement: “Public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government.”

Recent events at Mar-al-Lago have brought the National Archives into the spotlight. Though much less controversial, it was fun to be working in the environment of an archival collection while these events were going on. As I waded through manuscripts and letters, I had a visceral connection to the work of those carting boxes back to Washington D.C. It’s worth noting that Rutgers has an extensive collection of ephemera documenting New Jersey history. Head over to to the University Archives and Special Collections page to follow your curiosity.

The actual work of this assignment included organizing boxes and editing finding aids. As with any extensive documentation project, minor editing was required to ensure that what is on the finding aid matches exactly what is inside the boxes and folders of the collection. The fun part is digging through the boxes. Some days I could get through many boxes, aligning the finding aid with the various versions of scores, from sketches to finished/published manuscripts. Anyone with a specific compositional process question would linger in these boxes, but I was just gathering the feel of the materials. Other days I would get caught up in writings and stories told by letters from Moevs to publishers – moments of vulnerability when he received rejections and his subsequent tenacity to forge ahead with publication in some way or another. The collection holds a lot of the mid-century highlight reel (pre-instagram). However in order to fully understand what goes into a career, we have to consider more than just concert posters and programs, the celebrations of new works coming to fruition. These letters show the depth in understanding a composer/professor’s career present in this archive.   

New as inquiry

This project did not arise from my own questions about say, a certain piece of Moevs or a compositional theory. Rather, I was looking for an overall picture of the man and his music, developing more specifics as the work progressed (a sort of grounded theory framework.) Additionally, I was thinking about the importance of this collection: What parts of history are preserved when we share the story of this composer/professor? We can’t go so far as to “hold the government accountable” with these records, but we can look critically at the institution of music, education and the canon. Connections can be made about time, place, privilege and opportunity. Through the collection, I got a glimpse at the making of a composer around the mid nineteenth century as well as the work that goes into maintaining a legacy. The Rutgers history and lineage of education/arts manifests in the connection today to students of Moevs. Moevs taught Judith Shatin, in turn a teacher of Steven Kemper, current music program director at Mason Gross School of the Arts. This music has been performed recently in concerts at Rutgers, and hopefully more will materialize in the future.  

New as relationship

The boxes are organized in such a way that led me to read through Moevs’ sketches and manuscripts first. I noticed things like his diverse orchestrations, his projects grown out of commissions and gifts, his penchant for Latin and Greek classics (a nod to his wife) and his meticulous handwriting. I enjoyed seeing the evolution from sketch to cut-and-pasted score to various versions of prints and publications (several new printing technologies debuted during his career). I listened to his recordings and got a taste for his style. Then one day I was reading an article, “A conversation with Robert Moevs” by James Boros. It struck me that I was hearing Moevs himself talk about his own music for the first time! I had been sifting through ephemera and felt like I was getting to know him. This was a wild feeling. I imagine it would be this way in any archive, and I’m hooked.  

  • Check out the Robert Moevs libguide here!

Some of my favorite items in the collection: 


Photo of Robert and his sister (Moevs scrapbook, Box 40) 


Letter from Nadia Boulanger on mini stationary (box 17)


Moevs’ sketches for Opus 23 – Variazioni Sopra una Melodia for Viola and Cello (Box 10)


Moevs’ notebooks from his time as a student at Harvard (Incredible handwriting!) (Box 21)