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Collection Therapy: Hospice Series

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My professional adventures are rooted in my own fascination with and questions about who we are as humans (how we identify ourselves, how we are layers of each version of our selves over time, how we become trapped in our elderly bodies, how we relate, how we die, how we cope, how we mourn). These questions have been constantly honed in my work — asked and answered over and over within the context of audio/visual materials. I hopped from grant to grant to build new programs for years, describing, preserving and providing access to artworks, dance, oral histories, home movies, and various forms of performance because I believe these arts to be celebrations of humanity. I want to support them. I want you to find them. These works keep us tied to our most human bits of self. They keep us feeling. They keep us sharing. They bring us back to us.

So much of the work we do in a research library is based in preservation and on potential future needs — of scholars, of educators, of unknown enthusiasts. What are we doing to celebrate our collections right now? How do we use our collections to bring us closer to one another? How do we use our collections to highlight our connections to one another? How can we do more?

Inspired by a brilliant program at the Yorkshire Film Archives called Memory Bank (using archival film and home movies to create compilations for use in reminiscence and mood therapy, primarily with elderly patients battling Alzheimer's) and the very moving viral YouTube clip from the upcoming documentary Alive Inside, I realized how easily we could be utilizing our Collection to provide immeasurable comfort to the seniors of New York City.

I aimed to begin Collection Therapy as an educational listening program administered in senior homes and residences around New York City. Providing listening visits based upon resident requests, I wished to simply show up, listen, enjoy, and leave. The project was well received in theory, but, failed to catch any momentum as I sought partners who sought financial support I could not provide. I had an opening in late September while on the Special Collections desk when Sara approached me seeking advice on how to hear and potentially share a non-circulating recording in our research collection. Sara had been reading Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales as a volunteer Hospice Reader. Her Lady, whom I will refer to as Anne from here on, made a request to hear Chaucer in Middle English, and Sara's search led her to an LP in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives.

After a series of meetings and a couple of scares that Anne may not make it until we ironed out how to begin piloting Collection Therapy: Hospice Series, I was able to visit and listen with Sara, Anne and Anne's husband on the evening of November 8th.

I was thrilled, but, I was nervous. Imagine the unknowing first steps you take into a Hospice listening session. I was not sure what to expect. I was afraid I would not be professional enough. I was afraid of being too professional. The apartment was warm and bright. I happily met Anne sitting up on her couch where she seems to spend most of her time, in the living room surrounded by beautiful antique furniture, illustrations of animals, books, and a bright white window sill lined with even brighter red geraniums.

The Canterbury tales / by Geoffrey Chaucer., Digital ID 497299, New York Public LibraryWe made our introductions and began by discussing the project which seemed to please Anne and her husband very much ("I've been a lot of things, but, I've never been a pilot."). She talked at length about her connection to Chaucer and early English before we proceeded to hear the recording (which was transferred to a CD for the listening session). Anne's oxygen machine pumped under the Middle English blaring from a boombox in the corner of the room. She and her husband both laughed aloud at the best jokes, and I stared at the red geraniums trying to keep up with the rhymes and do my best not to seem too impolite by staring at Anne while she listened.

After about fifteen minutes we turned off the recording and spoke about the recipe of Middle English — the meter, the rhyme. How does one know how to pronounce it all? This discussion led to our next request we are in the process of researching for her. Anne's Great Aunt came from Washington, D.C. Without ever fully being aware of how this Great Aunt's accent affected her, Anne was on a train platform one day as a teen when she heard a porter yell direction with this same old Washington D.C. accent. She burst into tears and threw herself into the porter's arms. We now search for this particular accent — this very specific sound — based on region and the Great Aunt's lifespan.

Am looking forward to future visits with Anne and her husband, as well as expanding the program and taking requests from other Hospice families.

The recordings we have worked so hard to collect and preserve have the power to provide an enriching, aurally comforting experience in death, and to cushion the grief of losing those we love. We also open an avenue of research regarding what we request on our deathbeds. What are the sounds we want to hear most when we know we won't hear much longer?

What sounds will bring you back to you?

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