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Folklife and Fieldwork, Fourth Edition

Four covers of the first edition of Folklife & Fieldwork: gold (1979 printing and special Florida 1983 printing), chocolate brown (1980 & 1981 printings), white (regular 1983 printing), parchment brown (1986 printing). The fonts were stylish but a little hard to read!

If you’ve been following the American Folklife Center’s website or our Facebook page (you can “like” it here to receive daily folklife inspiration!), you may have noticed an updated version of our classic fieldwork manual, Folklife & Fieldwork. For decades, this handy small book has offered guidance to people interested in documenting folklife who don’t have advanced training in an ethnographic discipline. Now it’s back, completely updated and revised, printed in full color, and available online as a pdf as well. Here I’ll offer a brief history of this handy volume, and discuss the process of updating it for the fourth edition.

Kenneth S. Goldstein (left) and Peter Bartis (right).  Kenny was one of Peter’s mentors in the creation of Folklife & Fieldwork. The photo is from Peter’s personal collection.

The first edition of Folklife & Fieldwork was published in 1979. Its author, Peter Bartis, was then a recent graduate of the PhD program in folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. His fieldwork professor and mentor at Penn, Kenneth S. Goldstein (1927-1995), had written what was then the only book-length fieldwork manual specifically intended for folklorists: A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore. Peter had also just participated in the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, the Center’s first major fieldwork initiative. As the staff member with the most recent fieldwork training, as well as up-to-date field experience, he was well positioned to write the center’s fieldwork guide.

The original edition, sporting a pretty gold cover with the title Folklife & Fieldwork: A Layman’s Introduction to Field Techniques, covered the bases admirably, including the definition of folklife, tips for observing and interviewing subjects, techniques for audio recording and still photography, and lists of folklife topics you might want to document, including specific genres and artifacts. There was also a very brief section about the kinds of cultural institutions that might be interested in acquiring the resulting collection. The book was limited, of course, by the technology of the time. Readers were challenged to choose between the better audio quality offered by a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder or the convenience of the newfangled cassette deck. They similarly had to weigh the advantages of black-and-white negatives vs. color slides, or consider if they could afford two cameras to shoot both. Hard choices for the 1979 fieldworker!

The second edition, published in 1990, used the same cover for all its printings. Somewhat confusingly, it replaced the ampersand with the full word “and,” and we have remained inconsistent ever since!

Folklife & Fieldwork was successful enough that the small first printing was quickly used up, and a reprint of the same edition was issued in 1980 with a chocolate brown cover. Four more printings followed throughout the 1980s, many with different covers, including one commissioned specially by the Florida Department of State. (If these ever become collectors’ items, completists may fight duels over the obscure Florida edition!)

In 1990, AFC published a revised second edition, revealing some of the things the staff had learned in the intervening decade. For example, it included release forms, because the desire to publish and disseminate the wealth of materials brought in by AFC’s field projects (many of which are among our online collections) had taught the Center’s staff the value of having people’s permission up front to use their materials. The new book added a section on video, which had become much more affordable in the intervening decade. It also expanded the section called “What to Do With the Results” to include not only information about which institutions might accept a collection, but also tips for creating physically stable documentation and for storing it in a safe environment, so it would be preserved even if the fieldworker held onto it for a long time.

The third edition of Folklife and Fieldwork came out in 2002. It introduced the ideas of digital documentation, wisely counseling against the use of DAT tape. However, it still assumed that analog tape would be the norm. It also expanded once again the advice for how to either create your own archive or make your materials ready to be donated to an established institution.

Can you spot the major difference between the two printings of the third edition?

The second printing of the 2002 edition incorporated the first change I was directly involved with as AFC’s editor: asked by our then-director Peggy Bulger to make any changes that we could accommodate with a turnaround time of just a couple of days, I discretely dropped the word “Layman’s” from the subtitle, both to get rid of the gendered implication that the fieldworker was a man, and to acknowledge that the book could be useful even for professionals. There was no time for more changes, so the book remained otherwise the same.

In 2015, with the 40th Anniversary of the American Folklife Center approaching, we decided the time was right to publish a fourth edition for 2016. Since Peter was spearheading the 40th Anniversary programming, the task fell to me (another of Kenny Goldstein’s students) to revise the book, with the help of a committee of AFC colleagues. The first thing we tackled was the title; we decided to drop the term “field techniques” from the subtitle. It was redundant, in that the main title already contains “fieldwork,” and it was also vague, in that “field techniques” could refer to geology or even farming. We replaced the subtitle with “An Introduction to Cultural Documentation,” which is at once more precise and more in keeping with today’s ethnographic language.

In revising the text, we began by thinking about some of the profound changes in our culture since 2002. For example, far more people are aware of folklife and oral history than was the case back then. AFC can take some of the credit for that, along with colleagues at the Veterans History Project, but so can other government agencies such as the Smithsonian Institution, as well as private organizations such as StoryCorps. We live in a world in which the idea of recording an oral history, or telling a story to be saved for posterity or broadcast on the radio, has become much more commonplace.

When our teacher Kenny Goldstein wrote A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore in the early 1960s, he couldn’t possibly have foreseen technological revolutions such as the smart phone!

Even more profoundly, smartphones have changed our relationship to technology; a vast number of people all over the world now walk around all the time with a recording device in our pockets. As a result, people are far more familiar with the basics of recording, saving files, and even editing audio, than they were in 2002. It’s a completely different world, and we realized that the book would need to reflect that. Most people would be coming to us with ideas already in mind as to what kind of projects they’d like to do, and what kind of people they wanted to interview. Instead of telling people what folklore is and directing them to collect it, we would need to engage the interest that had caused them to seek out the book in the first place.

Another issue was the book’s organization. Early on in the revising process, I realized that the 2002 edition had been the result of a complex history (part of which is described above), and that the book’s overall organization had evolved organically in a way we wouldn’t necessarily have planned. For example, almost the entire chapter on archiving your collection had been added for the second and third editions. This put the reader in the unfortunate position of arriving at the end of the book and being told: “Plan your labeling and numbering system in advance.” Although ideally we hope fieldworkers read the whole book before beginning their projects, it still seemed more sensible that sections be placed in the chronological order in which the fieldworker needs to start thinking about them. This also had a second benefit: if we organized the book according to the sequence in which a field project is planned and executed, the table of contents would function as a chronological checklist of items to be addressed. [1]

Looking then at the 2002 table of contents, I found such sections as “What to Collect” and “Whom to Interview.” These seemed a little bossy for 2016—as we had noted in our committee discussions, people probably already knew some of the things they wanted to document and some of the people they wanted to interview, so they wouldn’t need to be told. In addition, sections like these couldn’t be put into a sequence. So I came up with new section titles that fit the book’s new chronological organization and also made clear that the fieldworker was in charge of such decisions. A few examples are “Think about Your Goals and Outcomes,” “Decide What to Document (and Why),” “Decide on the First People to Interview,” and “Consider the Ethics of Your Project.” That last example, fieldwork ethics, is a new section written fresh for this edition, as were similar sections on digital archiving principles (including the magic of metadata).

Folklife and Fieldwork has been translated into Spanish twice: by Cecilia Merrill in 1985 (pictured), and by Pampa Rótolo in 2004. We hope to translate the new edition into Spanish, and other languages too!

Another innovation in the new edition is the overall style. I have to admit that I was inspired by other popular beginners’ guides, such as the For Dummies and Idiot’s Guide series, which are successful at addressing a general audience of adults without alienating people from any part of the education spectrum. Although fieldwork is a serious topic, so are many of the skills and processes tackled by such lighthearted books, and I thought this approach would work well for us. To emulate that general style, I pitched the writing to be more breezy and conversational than the previous editions of Folklife and Fieldwork.

With these decisions made, the path was clear to revise the book. Beginning with Peter’s text from 2002, and with a helpful edit by my colleague Nancy Groce, I pulled the text apart, reorganized, rewrote, and wrote many new sections as necessary. Technological issues were brought up to date. The increasing role of video was acknowledged with more emphasis given to visual principles. Brief sections were drafted by Guha Shankar and Maggie Kruesi in their particular fields of expertise. As I wrote, rewrote, and wove together these many sources, I tried to cover all the areas we had discussed: ethics and practicalities, fieldwork methods and archival principles, and the range of things folklorists might document, from oral histories and jokes to barns and graveyards.

Naturally, not everything fit into the flow of the book. I kept a series of short outtakes, including handy tips, facts, and bits of background that didn’t fit into the main sequence. I planned for these to become breakout boxes, adding visual interest to the pages while also offering deeper context in certain areas—another editor’s trick I learned from those clever Dummies and Idiots!

The next task was photo research. After pricing out various options, we were delighted to find that full-color printing had become much more affordable since 1979, and that the book could feature color photos. I therefore went through the digitized field projects looking for good color shots of both folklife and fieldwork. Again with help from my colleagues, including Ann Hoog, I selected photos illustrating the book’s points, decided where in the book they should go, and wrote captions for them.

The cover of the fourth edition.

When I had done all this and delivered the text and images to Susan Sharp in the Library’s graphics unit, I sat down to my last task on the book: designing the cover, again with input from the committee, especially Theadocia Austen and AFC director Betsy Peterson. We tried several options, settling on one which shows five photos in a roll of film. This gave us the opportunity to showcase several images of different kinds of people on the front cover. Since the AFC’s enabling legislation begins with the statement “the Congress hereby finds and declares that the diversity inherent in American folklife has contributed greatly to the cultural richness of the Nation,” we’ve always felt that representing this diversity is a big part of our mission. It’s hard to do that with just one fieldwork photo, so a design that allowed for five suited us well. In addition, this design emphasizes the photos’ existence as documentary data about folklife: it makes them both “photos as representations of the world” and “photos as items of documentation.” Iconographically, they can therefore represent both “folklife” and “fieldwork.” [2]

I finally felt the book was finished when I selected the central and final photo for the cover, rotated it digitally, and inserted it into its frame. An image by Jonas Dovydenas of a patron at the Yarn and Canvas craft supply store in Chicago in 1977, it tied the book together both visually and historically: the fieldwork in that shop was conducted by Peter Bartis, and the image’s centrality to the cover is a reminder of his own work’s centrality to the book. Peter still works for AFC today, and is looking forward to his 40th anniversary of service to the Library in a few short weeks. In retrospect, I’m also glad to have chosen a photo of Alan Jabbour, the Center’s founding director, as one of the other cover photos; Alan died just a few months after the book was finished, and I wrote him a tribute here at Folklife Today.

The fourth edition of Folklife & Fieldwork has been available since September 2016. We’ve gotten some great feedback, we’ve given away over a thousand copies, and we know it’s in use in places as far apart as Indiana and Iceland. We’d love for you to take a look, use it in the field, and let us know what you think. The book can be downloaded at this link, and if you want hard copies they’re available free of charge from the American Folklife Center. Just get in touch and we’ll send you some!  We also have more resources for fieldworkers online at this link.


  1. This sequential approach isn’t completely pervasive. For example, once you’re doing fieldwork, there’s no correct order in which to do audio recordings, video recordings, still photography, and participant observation; you’ll be doing some combination of those things each day. But the chronological organization does give the book a logical flow from topic to topic and makes the process of designing and executing a project clearer than earlier editions did.
  2. Of course, we’re very aware that this design also has the disadvantage of suggesting old-fashioned technology. But hey, write to us and let us know!

One Comment

  1. Jean
    April 13, 2017 at 8:25 pm


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