Peter Bartis, a nationally recognized expert in American folklore who is credited with playing a lead role in the development of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center during his more than 40 years of working there as a folklife specialist, died Dec. 25, 2017 of complications associated with lung cancer. He was 68.
A write-up on Bartis’ career at the Folklife Center published in Folklife Today, an in-house blog, says that at the time of his retirement last fall Bartis was the “longest-serving employee in the American Folklife Center’s history, a record that will probably go unchallenged for a long time.”
The write-up, written by Stephen Winick, one of Bartis’ colleagues, adds, “In many ways, Peter’s presence and diligent work has defined the Center for over 40 years. All of us at the AFC, in addition to his colleagues throughout the Library, will miss him profoundly.”
Bartis was a longtime resident of D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. He was born and raised in Pawtucket, R.I., in a multi-ethnic neighborhood that he told friends and colleagues provided him with an appreciation for his home state’s and the nation’s cultural diversity that remained with him throughout his life, according to the Folklife Today write-up.
He received his bachelor’s degree in 1972 from Boston University and in 1974 received a master’s in arts degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina.
He began course work for his Ph.D. in folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania shortly before the American Folklife Center was founded in 1976. While continuing his studies, Bartis applied for and was hired for a temporary job related to a Folklife Center project in 1977 to document traditional arts in diverse ethnic communities in Chicago.
The Folklife Today write-up says that when the project ended in 1977 he applied for a permanent job at the American Folklife Center and began work there on June 22, 1977. Among his first projects as an employee was his role as co-curator of an exhibit he helped put together that included the voluminous folklife related archives that had been collected by the Library of Congress’s Music Division since 1928 and which was transferred to the American Folklife Center.
“Peter earned his Ph.D. in 1982 with a dissertation about the American Folklife Center’s archive,” Folklife Today states in its write-up on Bartis. “It’s a crucial account of the archive’s first 50 years, and AFC keeps a copy in the Folklife Reading Room so that researchers can have easy access to Peter’s scholarship,” it says.
In his more than 40 years at the Folklife Center, Bartis coordinated numerous projects in several different roles. Among them were the roles of field worker and project manager; author of many resource guides and manuals for the Center, including its widely read Folklife Sourcebook and Folklife and Fieldwork; involvement in the Center’s educational and training programs; and his role as senior program officer for the Center’s highly acclaimed Veterans History Project.
Folklife Today’s write-up says that upon his retirement from the Center last year Bartis continued to support the Center’s work by making a “generous gift to establish the American Folklife Center Internship Fund,” which will provide educational opportunities for emerging scholars who are both undergraduate and graduate college students.
Bartis is survived by his husband, George Benjamin “Ben” Zuras; his brother Jim Bartis and sister Elizabeth Ann Goyer and their families; and by many friends and colleagues throughout the Library of Congress, the Folklife Today write-up says.
“He’ll be missed particularly here at the American Folklife Center, where we have never before had to operate without his guidance, his cooperation, and his friendship,” it says.