CLHP Intern Blog: Emily Werner

We’re delighted to be working this summer with Caffè Lena History Project student interns from Skidmore College. Their energy, insight, and ideas are already enhancing CLHP research and outreach in incredible ways. They will each be contributing a blog entry about their work and discoveries. The first installation comes from Emily Werner, recently featured in The Saratogian which highlighted her work with Caffè Lena:

CLHP: What drew you to work with the Caffè Lena History Project? What are you working on? How does your internship dovetail with your studies at Skidmore?

Emily: As soon as I heard about the opportunity to intern with the Caffè Lena History Project, I knew that I wanted to apply.  I am an American Studies major at Skidmore College and I hoped that working with Caffè Lena would allow me to gain valuable experience in my field.  It started out as a desire to do something productive with my summer, but it has turned into much more than that.

There have been several times during my internship thus far that I have reflected back on things that I learned in my American Studies classes.  American Studies is an interdisciplinary discipline, meaning that it draws on many different disciplines including history, literature, economics, music, art, sociology and more, in order to make sense of the American experience.  My work with Caffè Lena requires me to combine history, literature, art, and music in order to understand what Caffè Lena means to people.

I have always been fascinated by history, more specifically, tangible history.  Seeing and handling objects from the past make history seem much more real than just reading words on a page.  In my work with Caffè Lena I have been able to assist in digitizing Caffè Lena materials in the Saratoga Springs History Museum. The archives include photographs, articles, letters and more, from people who have performed at Caffè Lena.  Being interested in museum and preservation work, the chance to handle and preserve original documents is exactly my sort of thing.  I am also involved in preserving the thoughts and ideas of previous and contemporary folk musicians by transcribing interviews with them.  I really love hearing personal memories about Caffè Lena and Saratoga as they were in the past.  In addition to the preservation work, I have contacted various photographers in order to get permission to include their Caffè Lena photographs in the Caffè Lena collection to be housed at the Library of Congress.

In my American Studies classes we read and talked at length about the method of oral history as a means of connecting to and learning about the past. The past really does come alive when you can hear someone speak with the amount of passion and nostalgia with which people talk about Caffè Lena.  Hearing the nuances, pauses, tones, and intonations in the telling of a story transports me.  I almost feel as if I am in Caffè Lena all those years ago, about to perform on that small stage, feet away from an encouraging audience, or sitting in the back of the Caffè with Lena, watching my folk idols perform.  I have really come to appreciate oral history, as it gives a true and personal sense of how people remember the past.

I had the chance to go to Caffè Lena for the first time this week.  I attended Thursday’s open mic night, and the room was just as full of energy and encouragement as I’d always heard it was.  And even though it was my first time there, I immediately felt included in a sort of community that was joined to welcome and support both new and seasoned performers to the stage.  I will definitely be going back in the future.

For me, downtown Saratoga used to be just a place of shops, restaurants, and ice cream parlors, but I now know about its unique cultural history as a place full of art and music held together by a strong sense of community.  I’ve always thought that Saratoga was one of the best towns that I’d ever gotten to know.  But learning about its history gives me a whole other dimension of it to appreciate.

A few summers ago I went to visit the Museum at Bethel Woods.  By lucky coincidence, Elliott Landy, the official photographer at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, was there doing a book signing.  Being able to talk to a man whose photographs shaped popular conceptions of an era was a truly memorable experience.  So the other day when I came across photographs taken by Elliott Landy in the Caffè Lena archives, I felt as if everything had come full circle.  Working with Caffè Lena really was a combination of many of my interests: music, photography, and history.

This internship has been a confirmation that I am heading in the right direction with my life.  Preserving the past by handling historical objects is exactly the kind of work that I want to continue doing.

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