Contagious magic and the accomplishments of Linda Dégh

The principle of contagious magic states that personal energy can travel through objects. If a master potter creates a pitcher, part of her expertise then lives in that pitcher, and can be transferred to the next person who touches it. In this process, the potter’s life force is like a contagion. It exists independently of her and can affect others who come into contact with it.

Social scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used contagious magic to explain the importance of totems among so-called primitive societies. That line of thinking has thankfully gone out of fashion, as “primitive” often served as a euphemism for “not as advanced as us,” or worse, “non-white.” Contagious magic survives today, though. In everyday life, many of us place extra value in the object that seems to transmit the energy of its previous handlers. Think of a departed ancestor’s wedding dress, or the cap and gown worn by a child who has grown up and left home. The closer we get to these artifacts, the closer we feel we are getting to the people whose hands once touched them.

Working in an archive provides a daily experience of contagious magic. The material an archivist deals with distills the energy of the inaccessible realm of history. Archival documents are letters from the past, both figuratively and literally. They provide detailed information about what people were thinking decades or even centuries ago, and often enough, they are made up of written correspondence from days gone by.

Linda Dégh
Linda Dégh

I had a rather potent encounter with contagious magic on a recent site visit with Dina Kellams, director of University Archives and Records Management. In late May, Dina and I spent time in the home of Linda Dégh, an eminent Indiana University folklorist who passed away in 2014. Our task was to collect the material that best serves to illustrate and honor Dégh’s career in folk narrative and belief studies. Her house was packed with it. Especially on the ground floor, a multi-room study where every available space was filled with books and paperwork, Dina and I had our work cut out for us.

As we sorted through the materials, we kept in mind how various types of documents would look if they were to be included in an archival collection. Of prime value were many of the thousands of photos Dégh shot over the years. The same was true of her hundreds of audio recordings, both cassette and reel-to-reel. Once processed, these will provide an intimate portrait of Dégh’s activities as a fieldworker. More specifically, they will allow users to partake in her point of view. To imagine holding the camera or pressing the record button is to effectively inhabit the perspective of this star of the field. The experience is doubly alluring for one who is familiar with Dégh’s work, as I am. The contagion of her career, which spanned most of the twentieth century, reaches me today, as if by magic.

The trouble with contagious magic in this case is that it applies to a much greater collection of materials than those that are appropriate for archiving. What of the many dissertations that Dégh supervised? Some of these sit in stacks in her basement. Several are still in their original envelopes, mailed decades ago by former students for her review. I know that these works are published elsewhere, probably in much handsomer formats. Still, I can’t help thinking of each of them as the physical incarnation of years of hard work and careful mentoring. If mental toughness looks like anything, it looks like a printed-out dissertation. Trust me. I just finished one. But to put such a document in the archive would unnecessarily expand its scope, as well as duplicate publication efforts made elsewhere. Therefore, the dissertations stay on the shelf, despite the energy and relationships they represent.

Just as Dégh’s work is far too voluminous to archive in total, it is too extensive to fully describe here. However, it is nicely summarized in her obituary from a recent issue of the Journal of American Folklore. Elizabeth Tucker writes: “Linda was such a star of folktale and legend studies, such a force of nature; how could she not be with us anymore?” The point is well taken. Dégh’s is a tremendous loss. Yet I am compelled to mention the comparably tremendous energy left behind in her papers. Through careful effort, perhaps our archiving project can capture a measure of that energy for posterity–a force of nature organized, indexed, and made available for public perusal.

A Photographic Journey through Indonesia

Students from the National Institute of Administration in Djakarta, Indonesia surrounding a flip chart listing goals for improving public administration practices.
Students from the National Institute of Administration in Djakarta, Indonesia surrounding a flip chart listing goals for improving public administration practices.

Ever heard the expression “A picture is worth a thousand words”? This was the idea behind a report about the progress of the Indiana University sponsored project to develop the National Institute of Administration (NIA) in Djakarta, Indonesia. The USAID funded project took place from 1959 to 1963 and focused on creating a training and research center in business and public administration in Indonesia. It was designed to train and educate citizens to become civil servants and administrators, to promote and provide research in the field of public administration, and to work to improve the effectiveness of government and public service throughout Indonesia. Indiana University assisted by providing consultants who helped to develop curricula and teaching methods, advise in campus administration organization, and purchase equipment, library materials, and research supplies for the new institute.

Students with a flip chart they created about the social security system in Indonesia.
Students with a flip chart they created about the social security system in Indonesia.

Frequent progress reports were a requirement for these types of international programs, and they typically consisted of a formulaic outline of necessary information including people involved in the project, goals, and accomplishments, and were often completed somewhat perfunctorily by team members. For the Indonesia project, however, one consultant submitted a different kind of report to the University. John R. Campbell worked for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in Boston and often acted as a private consultant in areas of public administration. Because of this experience, along with a previous job as a consultant to the Brazilian government to assist with their social security program, he was hired by Indiana University in 1960 for a three-month consultant position in Indonesia. His main task was to assess the management and training practices of the Indonesian government and provide feedback about how the NIA could improve these programs.

Students taking a break in the cafeteria at the National Institute of Administration.
Students taking a break in the cafeteria.
A new dormitory under construction.
A new dormitory under construction.

After Lynton K. Caldwell, the IU Campus Coordinator for the project, found out about Campbell’s experience as an amateur photographer, he suggested that Campbell take photographs illustrating the progress, work, and activities of the Institute as part of his assignment. Upon completion of his job in Indonesia, Campbell was required to submit a report of his observations and suggestions. Campbell chose to combine his photographs with his written report to create a visual representation of the status of public administration alongside images of Indonesian students and rural life.

A view of Indonesia. The caption on the back of the photo indicates that the sign reads "Do not throw away trash particularly bamboo meat sticks."
A view of Indonesia. The caption on the back of the photo indicates that the sign on the tree reads “Do not throw away trash particularly bamboo meat sticks.”

Campbell’s report contains a written statement about his experiences abroad as well as photographs of students with illustrated flip charts outlining the issues and goals for public administration in Indonesia. It also contains photographs of students, the IU project team, and USAID officers. Perhaps of more interest to those unfamiliar with public administration are images of the Indonesian countryside and rural life, including some scenic views, townspeople working, and transportation. According to Campbell, the 33 photographs are meant “to depict in graphic form what lays behind, what exists and what lies ahead” for public administration and government in Indonesia. Today, these photographs offer a rare and interesting view of Indonesia’s education, culture, and people in 1960 that is unique to this collection.

Indonesian farmer in a rice paddy.
Indonesian farmer in a rice paddy.

In addition to Campbell’s report, this collection also contains 15 photographs taken by American project team members and placed in a scrapbook about Indonesia from the late1950s and early 1960s. Some of these photos can be viewed online through the Archives Photograph Collection. To learn more about Indiana University’s involvement in Indonesia, check out the finding aid for the recently processed Indonesia Public Administration Program records or contact the IU Archives!

New Photo Collection web site!

Limestone and train, circa 1910. (P0020047) The database also includes images of the surrounding community.

The rich history and culture of Indiana University and its regional campuses are captured in a collection of approximately two million images held by IU Archives. With the launch of the new Archives Photo Collection website, users will be able to more easily search that collection for specific images.

The site allows users to discover photos in the collection’s database – currently 4,000 catalogued images and increasing daily – in a variety of ways. Users can search the descriptive terms provided for each image, or browse the entire collection by dates; personal, building or event names; topics; or photographer/studio. The site also features an option, “My Selections,” to temporarily store images that users have selected. Users have the option to order a print or higher-resolution scan of the original image.

Students "clearly" thrilled to sit for a photo for the 1971 telephone directory. (P0024078)

The vast majority of images in the IU Archives Photo Collection were shot by IU’s Extension Division, Photographic Services Department, Athletic Department, and News Bureau. Many of the photographers employed by these departments have become well known for their work, including Will Counts, Barney Cowherd, Jerry Uelsmann, Jerry Mitchell, Jack Welpott, Clarence Flaten, Dave Repp, Ralph “Porky” Veal, and Ric Cradick. Other images in the collection were shot mostly by local professional photographers, alumni, and faculty.

The images and web site are hosted by the IU Digital Library Program.

Any questions? Please contact the Archives Photographs Curator, Brad Cook.