MLIS student Whitney Thompson awarded for music history research into “Claribel”
May 15, 2023
Soon to be Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) alumna Whitney Thompson recently received the 2023 HS History Research and Innovation Award and the Walter Gerboth Award for her work investigating the life and career of Charlotte Alington Barnard, aka “Claribel”, a popular and successful songwriter in 1860’s England.
Both of the research awards she received are from professional organizations in the library field, the Reference and User Services Association (part of the American Library Association) and the Music Library Association. “It’s been hard for me to find funding opportunities,” Thompson said, “because I’m not a Ph.D. student and my research into Claribel isn’t for thesis or dissertation. I’m grateful that the eligibility requirements for these awards are flexible enough to accommodate researchers like me.”
The MLIS degree with a digital curation specialization at Luddy Indianapolis encompassed almost every aspect of information science that Thompson was interested in, with room for a few electives to spare. “No other library science program I’d been looking at fit my interests and budget nearly as well as Luddy’s. Anywhere else, I wouldn’t have had enough space for my own interests among all the other required classes,” she said.
Thompson said the online, asynchronous nature of this degree was also a huge benefit. She shared that it is pretty common for library degrees, wherein it’s basically assumed that students will be working during their time in school—gaining practical experience alongside their coursework, as well as just making a living. That was the case for her, too; She had a good full-time job in Madison, Wisconsin, and the work she was doing was directly relevant to the types of jobs she wanted to shoot for post-MLIS. With IUPUI’s program, she was able to balance work and school during her degree.
The digital curation specialization is quite technical in nature, but she found ways to be creative with her coursework. “I love tinkering around with multimedia and experimenting with different forms of and tools for storytelling,” Thompson said. Her first graduate degree was actually an MA in communication and new media from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where she “took every opportunity to create multimedia projects for my classes and teach myself new things in the bargain, which is something I continued here at IUPUI.”
A highlight from among the projects she has done at Luddy was the interactive Twine game she created for S581 Archives and Records Management. One of the assignments for that class asked students to create a stand-alone instruction session on how archives work. Thompson said she loves to make things more complicated for herself, so she emailed the instructor Denise Rayman and asked if she could make a Twine game to simulate the process of archival research. “This is one of many reasons why I cannot speak highly enough of Denise. She pretty much said “that sounds great, knock yourself out!” And I almost did, literally, because finishing that project on time involved more late nights than I could count. The end result was absolutely worth it, though,” Thompson said.
Thompson taught herself to use Twine in order to create an archival-research game for the Archives and Records Management course. She also created two digital-exhibit websites via the Omeka platform, one for her Digital Collections course and one for her Information Sources and Services course. The latter site was her submission for the “annotated bibliography” assignment, which many Luddy MLIS students complete as part of their degree program—and, of course, her subject of choice was Claribel.
I’m a better historian because I’m a librarian.
“Library school has also been an enormous influence. I’m a better historian because I’m a librarian,” Thompson said. She knows where she can search for relevant material (primary source databases, WorldCat, HathiTrust, &c) and how to search for it (Boolean operators, wildcard characters, filtering). She can interpret archival finding aids and figure out whether a collection has materials she wants to see, and also knows full well that archives can have silences and gaps. She has worked with OCR software enough to have a good sense of where and how it misinterprets text—and, as such, how she can work around that when doing full-text searches of primary sources.
Thompson named Dr. Angela Murillo as one definite influencer at Luddy. She had been one of Murillo’s assistants on a couple projects so far, and had learned so much about scholarly communication in a couple different senses. The first project she worked on involved comparing several web-based digital repositories in terms of their user experience and viability for various types of scholarly outputs, and Thompson said she can already tell she’s going to lean on that experience heavily when applying for scholarly-communication jobs. She has also been learning how to write social-science papers and said the styles and conventions are different enough from humanities writing that she’s had a decent learning curve, but she loves the challenge and the opportunity to broaden her own disciplinary horizons.
Right after she graduates, Thompson is headed to England. Funded by the two awards she received, she will travel around the country for six and a half weeks, neck deep in various archives and photographing “every currently-undigitized scrap of archival material she can get her hands on.” She will spend a lot of time at the British Library, the National Archives, the Lincolnshire Archives, and the Louth Museum. Thompson is also giving a talk at Nerd Nite London on May 17, and is on the program for two academic conferences while there: Women, Money and Markets 1600-1950 and Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain.
One of the classes Thompson took her final semester was S511 Database Design with Dr. Kyle Jones, for which she built a relational database from scratch. She had wanted to build a relational database for recording Claribel-related information for a while, because she figured it would be the best way to represent all the interconnected data about her songs, “It’ll be a lot of data entry, but I should be able to marshal that data in cool ways and quantify some of the observations I’ve made about Claribel’s career,” she said.
Thompson’s ultimate objective is to write a biography of Claribel. “After this trip, I’ll hopefully have assembled enough information that I can confidently piece together the trajectory of Claribel’s life and career—find the narrative, essentially,” she said. Her goal is to have the book outlined by the end of 2023, so that in 2024 she can put together a full book proposal and start querying literary agents.
Thompson is still very much job-hunting. While she’s keeping an open mind, her absolute ideal situation would be an academic library gig somewhere in the Midwest (e.g. Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit/Ann Arbor), working in the general Venn diagram of scholarly communication, digital curation and digital repositories, research data management, and metadata. She is especially keen to find a position where she can use her existing copyright knowledge in a library or archival context.
Her main advice for prospective MLIS students is to pace themselves. “You don’t have to plunge straight through this program, either—you can take classes at exactly the pace you need, based on your own existing obligations and abilities. And even if you do occasionally bite off more than you can chew, or if various work, medical, or family emergencies come up such that you can’t complete an assignment quite on time, 98% of the time your instructors will understand,” she said.
“Life is unpredictable. Weird stuff happens sometimes. The people in this program get that, and it’s one of the things I’ve found most valuable about this degree. It’s helped me be kinder to myself when I have a lot on my plate.”
What is the story behind Claribel?
For over four years, Thompson worked for a digital sheet music company—Musicnotes, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her job and the company changed and grew a lot over her time there, but her two most consistent responsibilities were cataloging new products in their database, and researching composer and copyright credits. When Thompson was cataloging some new piece of sheet music or researching song credits, she would do her absolute best to ensure accurate metadata.
Accuracy helps artists get music royalties. Music metadata remains largely un-standardized, but artists can’t get paid for usage of their songs if they’re not linked to those songs through accurate metadata. As of mid-2022, Musicnotes had paid over $120 million in royalties since the company’s beginnings in 1998. “I’m enormously proud of the work I did there, because I was helping to put well-earned and well-deserved money in artists’ pockets, and in general helping artists get recognized for their work,” Thompson said.
One day in April 2021, Thompson came across a piece of sheet music on the Musicnotes website that had incorrect metadata. The song was titled “Give of Your Best to the Master,” and while the sheet music itself credited a “Mrs. Charles Barnard”—which would have been annoying enough—the website metadata listed the song as “composed by Charles Barnard.” (Women being credited only by their married names and or as “Mrs. (husband’s name)” is a pretty well-known issue in historical research.)
The lyrics to this particular hymn were composed in the early 1900s by Howard B. Grose, a former president of the University of South Dakota, and set to an existing tune—one composed a few decades earlier, by Charlotte Alington Barnard. That information alone was enough to correct the music metadata… but Barnard’s Wikipedia page and the sources it cited revealed more to the story. Charlotte Alington Barnard was better known by the pseudonym “Claribel,” and under that name she published over 100 songs from 1859 until her death in 1869 (mostly popular ballads rather than sacred music, too). Furthermore, she was “the most commercially successful composer” for her publisher, Boosey & Sons (according to Grove Music Online)—and she was also one of the first composers ever to receive royalties for her music sales. For sheet music specifically, too, because this was the era right before the advent of recorded sound.
Royalties were a paradigm shift in the music business. Before the advent of royalties, composers who wanted their songs published usually had to sell the copyright to a publisher, relinquishing all rights to their work. They could maybe get a decent lump-sum payment for it if they were well-known and/or had a good sales track record, but more often they’d just get a pittance, or a few free printed copies of their sheet music. Every song was a gamble for publishers, because they ultimately couldn’t know what would sell—but composers still got a raw deal if their song did turn out to be popular. The publisher owned the copyright, and they could print and sell as many copies as they pleased, raking in all the profits. The composer wouldn’t see a cent.
As it happens, John Boosey of Boosey & Sons—Claribel’s primary publisher—seems to have been the first music publisher in England to extend royalties to composers, and Claribel was the first composer on his roster with whom he made a royalty arrangement. So when Thompson was reading about this for the first time, it was a giant shift in perspective for her. “The modern system of music royalties that I worked with while at Musicnotes, the whole idea that there’s value in people’s enjoyment of music and that musicians deserve compensation for that labor… all of that had to start somewhere, and it seemed like it started in part with this woman who called herself Claribel,” Thompson said.
There isn’t much out there on Claribel, at least not in scholarly literature. Thompson has found her in a handful of scholarly articles, small entries in a few biographical dictionaries, one delightful book called She Wrote the Songs by Patricia Hammond, and one prior attempt at a biography that was published in 1965 and is out of print. The vast majority of what Thompson has discovered about Claribel herself has been through primary source research, and the majority of that has come from IUPUI’s database subscriptions. In particular, she has amassed a sizable collection of scanned pages from 19th-century periodicals and she has used these primary sources to several ends thus far. She has been compiling a definitive list of Claribel’s published songs (a previous list was incomplete) and she has also analyzed how music critics discussed—and dismissed—Claribel’s work.
About half the existing scholarship on Claribel has ignored her reception in the media of her day, but since Thompson’s academic background is in media and cultural studies, that was one of the first things she started investigating. “When I was completing my MA degree, I also worked as a research assistant to Dr. Christina Baade, who was and is researching the postwar career of the British singer Vera Lynn. A lot of the work I did for that project involved periodicals research, looking at all the Vera Lynn coverage in mid-20th-century entertainment industry magazines and seeing how Lynn constructed her own public image—and how, occasionally, these periodicals would construct it for her. That’s had a huge influence on my approach to researching Claribel,” Thompson said.