May 23, 2017

Library of Congress Hosts Bibliodiscotheque

Carla Hayden and Gloria Gaynor
Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

On May 6, the Library of Congress (LC) was transformed into a disco for one night. Librarians from the Washington, DC, area (as well as 23 other states, Australia, Mexico, and Switzerland) dressed up in their finest ’70s vintage duds and danced the night away under a mirror ball in the Great Hall of LC’s Thomas Jefferson Building. DJs spun tunes, disco diva Gloria Gaynor belted, and—to everyone’s delight—Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden donned a formidable afro wig and mirror ball earrings.

The dance party, and the day-long symposium that preceded it, capped off more than three weeks of Bibliodiscotheque, an in-depth exploration of disco culture and music at the library. Inspired by the induction of Gaynor’s classic “I Will Survive” into LC’s National Recording Registry in 2016, the eclectic range of programming included a live interview with fashion consultant and author Tim Gunn by Deputy Librarian of Congress Robert Newlen, lectures on music from ABBA to African dance, a panel discussion on disco and Vietnam veterans, and a film series.

WHY DISCO?

Why the close look at a musical era that peaked 40 years ago, and that many still disparage as frivolous, fashion-backward, overproduced, and overly commercial?

There is, of course, LC’s current initiative to publicize its treasures and make them accessible to all—largely driven by Hayden, who referred to LC in her swearing-in speech as “a place where you can touch history and imagine your future.”

But there is also the library’s mission since its establishment in 1800: preservation. At Saturday’s panel discussion Alice Echols, professor of history and the Barbra Streisand Chair of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, pointed out that because disco’s early adopters were largely marginalized groups—blacks, Latinx, and LGBTQ—it’s important to document the genre’s progression from transgressive to cliché. Media, culture, and communication scholar Martin Scherzinger added, “Reconstructing history is no mean feat…. It needs to leave traces,” citing Nazi-era European youth dance club subculture as an appropriately resistance-heavy precursor to the urban ’70s clubs where disco made its debut.

MORE, MORE, MORE

Omega National Products mirror sales and service manager Toni Grady Lehring presents Robert Newlen and Carla Hayden with a custom LC mirror ball
Photo by Lisa Peet

The importance of the historical record aside, Saturday’s festivities were nothing but fun. The day began with a discussion of the craft of making disco balls, with craftswoman Yolanda Ayers Baker presenting LC with its very own commemorative mirror ball. Gaynor was given a private tour of standout treasures from LC’s Special Collections of the Music Division, including original scores by Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, and George and Ira Gershwin. Gaynor treated fortunate guests to a few impromptu measures of “Summertime” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay” before signing LC’s guest book on the page next to Stevie Wonder’s.

Later in the afternoon, Gaynor spoke onstage with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts about her early experiences with dance music—growing up in Newark, she recalled, the first discotheques were rooms with a DJ ensconced in a closet that had the door sawed off halfway. Gaynor was recovering from spinal fusion surgery and worried for her career when she was approached with the opportunity to record “I Will Survive” by its authors Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris, so the lyrics resonated for her. The song was an instant hit in the clubs, particularly New York’s Studio 54, and the rest is disco history.

Gloria Gaynor in concert
Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

Gaynor offered up a heartfelt and stirring acceptance speech, and sang a number from her newest album accompanied by a pianist. As she signed copies of her most recent book, We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration, and the Power of Song (Grand Harbor), the dance party attendees began queuing outside LC, displaying lots of glitter, rayon, platform shoes, sequins, and big hair unsubdued by the evening’s drizzle.

The concert and party, presented in association with media company Brightest Young Things, The Recording Academy, the District of Columbia Library Association, and Capital Pride, drew more than 1,400 guests. In addition to headliner Gaynor, featured attractions included two DJs— Adrian Loving and Mike Simonetti—themed cocktails, and a 3-D photo booth (see the hashtag #LCDisco for tweets and pictures). LC’s central reading room held a “silent disco”—a curated selection of songs and ephemera from the era. Everyone, from guests to subject librarians who would not have missed this for the world, agreed: this was not business as usual. But given the library’s roster of upcoming pop-up displays, including Pride In the Library, which will feature items from the Library’s extensive LGBTQ+ collections, and a “Library of Awesome” presence showcasing LC’s comic book collection at DC’s Awesome-Con June 16–18, the institution is certainly stayin’ alive.

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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