Student Employee Profile: Meet Callum John Blackmore

This series of profiles highlight valued student employees from across the Libraries, including Callum John Blackmore, a processing archivist at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Libraries are the largest employer of students on campus. We couldn’t serve our users without them!

Callum John Blackmore, processing archivist at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Q: Which library do you work at and what is your title?

I work as a processing archivist at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). 

Q: What does your job entail?

The RBML has an incredible collection of archival documents. I am so honored to play a (very small) part in making this archival treasure trove accessible to the community. I work part-time for a dedicated team of archivists who take collections that have been donated to the university and ensure that they are well preserved, easy to navigate, accurately described, and digitally cataloged. This means processing collections both physically and intellectually: physically by storing them in long-term, stable, and well labeled housing; and intellectually by describing the scope and content of the collection, situating the physical items within their broader socio-historical context. It’s a truly marvelous job – at once mentally stimulating and imminently tactile. I found it offers a great mix of depth and variety: even as you immerse yourself for weeks on end in a single archival collection, you encounter such an extraordinary range of documents. Just last week, I found a pastel sketch for a costume worn by Christopher Plummer and an envelope of 19th-century tintype photography in the same box! 

Q: Could you describe the most rewarding part of working at the Libraries?

I came to the RBML through the Graduate Internship in Primary Sources – a marvelous program that gives graduate students the rare chance to spend a summer learning the basics of archival processing. I am so grateful to the Libraries and to GSAS for their support of this program, because it gave me the opportunity to learn from the RBML’s experienced and hardworking team of archivists. This was the most rewarding aspect for me. All the archivists I met were so knowledgeable – not just about the theory and practice of archival processing (although they are truly experts in this regard!), but also about the rich histories represented in Columbia’s archival collections. My supervisor for this internship, Celeste Brewer, was so patient in answering all my questions and so generous in sharing her expertise with me. And she was just one of many archivists who I had the pleasure to learn from as part of this program. I am so grateful to have been given the chance to work with such an inspiring team of professional role models.   

Q: What is your area of study?

I am in my last year of a PhD in historical musicology here at Columbia. My dissertation is about 18th-century French opera and the rise of capitalism. I am really interested in the ways that musical cultures shape broader economic phenomena: the 18th century witnessed an immense transformation of the French economy and opera was often at the forefront of promoting new and radical economic ideas to the French public. I am currently working on my final chapter, which is about opera during the so-called “Reign of Terror” – a period of immense cultural and economic crisis in which opera played a particularly crucial role. 

Q: Of the libraries on campus, which is your favorite place to study?

I have to give a “shout-out” to the Music & Arts Library in Dodge Hall, which is one of Columbia’s best-kept secrets! Not only is this a relaxing place to study (currently boasting a great view of the changing fall foliage), but it also offers a range of unique services for students and researchers: a digital music lab equipped with the latest compositional software; stations for listening to musical recordings (in all formats, from LP to digital); an enormous collection of musical scores; and a wonderful program of public events, concerts, and workshops. The librarians there are so knowledgeable and have been immensely helpful to me in my PhD research (especially the library’s director, Nick Patterson). In my six years at Columbia, I have built up some wonderful memories in that library: one time, we even staged an 18th-century English ballad opera in their reading room!    

Q: What do you consider to be a “hidden gem” at the library where you work?

This is an impossible question, because the RBML has nothing but hidden gems! I was in the reading room the other day, doing a bit of research for my dissertation, and I came across a letter penned in French by the Spanish singer and composer, Isabella Colbran (1785-1845). 

The letter is undated, and I am still trying to figure out its context (so take all of this with a grain of salt!). However, I believe the letter dates from around 1808. Colbran was then one of the most famous sopranos in Europe; and although she mainly worked in Italy, she gave a hugely successful concert series in Paris. On its face, the letter seems rather prosaic: Colbran is writing to Henri-Montan Berton, the director of the Odéon theater in Paris, to request permission for the tenor Manuel García – then contracted to the Odéon – to appear in one of her concerts. However, the letter is fascinating on several levels. Colbran would later marry the composer Gioachino Rossini – a financially controlling misogynist. Too often, her artistic legacy has been elided with (or subsumed into) his – especially in musicological accounts. We tend to forget that she spent much of her life as an independent business woman, a self-reliant artist-entrepreneur. This letter provides a brief glimpse into this important facet of her career, demonstrating how she navigated the male-dominated world for 19th-century French opera. This must have been a particularly tense interaction for Colbran: Berton despised the particularly virtuosic style of singing championed by Colbran and was even more resentful of artists like Colbran and Rossini who introduced this style to the French public. 

For me, this letter encapsulates all the reasons that I love the RBML. It is just a tiny little scrap of paper, sent in haste by a busy opera singer. And yet it is an incredibly rich text, full of unique historical insights. And the RBML is packed full of thousands upon thousands of scraps of paper just like this one, each with its own important story to tell! 

Q: You recently worked with two collections which provide insights into the life and work of Judy Garland. What was your biggest takeaway from this project? What surprised you most? 

The RBML has a wonderful performing arts repository, largely compiled by (recently retired) curator Jennifer Lee. I recently had the privilege of processing two (really fascinating) performing arts collections: the papers of the opera singer Leyna Gabriele and the scores of the composer-arranger Mort Lindsey. And yes, both collections had interesting connections to Judy Garland. Gabriele co-owned an Upper-East Side nightclub which gained tabloid fame after Garland was ejected from the premises in the 1950s, while Lindsey worked as Garland’s arranger in the 1960s. 

The Lindsey collection is particularly close to my heart. Lindsey worked with Garland at a particularly pivotal juncture in the singer’s career, including a much-lauded return to the concert stage and a successful foray into television. Lindsey played a crucial role in reshaping Garland’s musical identity during this period of artistic transformation, providing a distinct soundtrack to one of the greatest “comebacks” in showbiz history. The most remarkable items in this collection (for me) are Lindsey’s annotated scores for The Judy Garland Show, which not only include arrangements of popular songs for Garland herself, but also his incidental music (for ad breaks, intros, and transitions) and various arrangements for Garland’s celebrity guests. They provide a unique insight into what it was like to work as a TV musician in the 1960s – the fast-paced, high-pressure studio environment, the sheer spontaneity of so many creative decisions, and the raw intensity of these high-profile artistic collaborations. 

One of my favorite scores is Lindsey’s (decidedly virtuosic) arrangement of “The Trolley Song” from Garland’s hit film Meet Me in St. Louis: Lindsey transforms this song into a duet, adding a rapid-fire countermelody for Mel Tormé, and jazzes-up the rhythm, lending it a frenetic energy. And at the end of the arrangement, Garland holds her final note for a staggering 40 seconds! What a voice! 

Q: What book are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion against Big Tech by technology historian Brian Merchant, which I heard recommended on the (truly brilliant) Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. It’s a socio-cultural history of the Luddite movement of the early 19th century. “Luddite” has been adopted in the modern lexicon as an epithet for someone who opposes technological progress. However, Merchant adeptly shows that the Luddites were not opposed to new technology per se; rather, they sought to resist the social inequalities that arose from industrialization, more concerned with the potential for new technology to erode labor conditions while lining elite pockets. It’s a very engaging read, with potent lessons for the age of Silicon Valley neoliberalism.