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New funds help Folklore Society make visible more folklore collections

The National Folklore Archives Initiative (NFAI), an effort by the American Folklore Society to document and provide access to folklore archival collections, recently received a second round of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Earlier funding in 2011-2013 resulted in the creation of the Folklore Collections Database (FCD), a stable framework hosted by the Indiana University Library at  www.folklorecollections.org through which archives can catalog and share metadata describing their collections. The latest grant builds upon the framework to enable 25 archival partner organizations to begin cataloging their collections, adding content to the FCD, and testing training materials that will be developed by the NFAI project team, and to aid future database users.

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Screenshot of the FCD front page.

Folklore archival collections–unpublished multi-format collections of materials created in the field that document traditional cultural expressions and knowledge–are valuable cultural resources but often difficult to access. These collections exist in a variety of institutions, many of which are not formal archives or libraries, and lack the means to build and maintain an infrastructure to coordinate this work.

This interview with AFS Executive Director Timothy Lloyd and NFAI co-directors Andy Kolovos and Steve Green looks at where this project is heading and why this discipline-specific effort is important.

Q: What problems inherent in managing folklore archives collections does the Folklore Collections Database (FCD) aim to address?

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Andy Kolovos in the AFC Reading Room. Photo by Stephen Winick.

AK: The project co-coordinators are trained archivists who also happen to be a folklorist and an ethnomusicologist.  As such we see a real value in acknowledging and respecting locally created descriptive systems, and we also recognize that these local systems are part of the broad tradition and history of the field. At the same time, for outsiders descriptive practices in folklore archives can be viewed as, to say the least, idiosyncratic, and these idiosyncrasies can serve as barriers to access and to grant support. So although NFAI as a project does not seek to impose standardized descriptive protocols on folklore archives, since FCD is based on a DACS-EAD schema it does allows these “idiosyncratic” data to be entered in a standardized way. Our hope is that by providing this platform we can help repositories address some of the related challenges around access and funding. From the other side, the FCD data structure was developed to accommodate some of the quirks of folklore archive description as well—with the goal of providing the stewards of folklore archives a standards-based platform they can use to describe collections that still acknowledges some of the curious characteristics of them.

SG: Our goal is not really to address archives management at this point–although we certainly recognize that there are challenging issues facing many folklore organizations with archival materials. The current focus of the NFAI is on improving discoverability–basically, working to identify what folklore-related archival materials are out there–finding out who has them and to what extent they are accessible to researchers. One of the challenges in this project is that folklore archives can be found in a range of institutional settings, from university libraries to state arts councils to non-profit community organizations. The fact that these places may have folklore archives does not mean they prioritize or process their materials the same way or are able to allocate resources to preservation and access the same way. So, for the moment, the NFAI is about increasing the visibility of archival folklore materials, wherever they might be. Not only will this help scholars and anyone interested in using the materials, it will also call attention to the remarkable work that academic and public folklorists have done collectively to identify, document, present, celebrate, interpret, preserve and advocate for the rich diversity of cultures and communities in the United States for more than a century.

Q: What are some of the idiosyncrasies specific to folklore fieldwork collections? 

AK: In 1958 folklorist William Hugh Jansen wrote in the inaugural issue of the Folklore and Folk Music Archivist, “No greater chaos can be imagined than that which prevails among the various set-ups which are, or might be termed, folk archives in the United States.” By the time I came on the scene in the late 1990s things weren’t quite as bad as Jansen makes out, but to be sure folklore archives were still generally built around the perspectives and needs of the various researchers who set them up–and therefore strongly rooted in the disciplinary perspectives of the field of folklore studies.

And although folklorists have used the word “archives” to describe their collections for over a century, up until quite recently most of these bodies of material have had little in common with the kinds of collections maintained by professionally trained archivists–and by this I mean in terms of intellectual content, organization, storage, and daily use. Some years ago Ellen McHale of the New York Folklore Society told me the story of sharing folklorist Bruce Buckley’s archive with a group of professional archivists–who went on to explain to them how Buckley’s “archive” differed from a “true archive.”

Q: Can you explain what kinds of collections are in scope for inclusion in the FCD?

AK: Most broadly, NFAI–and by extension FCD–focuses on field-based ethnographic collections of folklore materials held by US repositories. While the initiative places emphasis on documenting materials created by trained folklorists, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists, we are also very interested in community-generated and community-based collections of cultural heritage materials as well.  An early, and continuing, interest of the project is identifying hidden collections of folklore materials housed in US repositories.

Q: During the initial funding phase, staff from 12 organizations with folklore archives collections were taught how to add collection descriptions to the FCD. What did you learn from that experience that will inform upcoming training of new users?

AK: Judging by the relatively low number of pleas for help from users of the system over our first two years, I’d say the pilot phase training went really well.  I’d argue that this is thanks in part to the wider cultural engagement with some fundamental concepts of archival description–for example, the word “metadata” has currency outside information fields–but our success was mostly due to the trainings conducted by top-notch people like Bert Lyons, who introduced the platform and some of its more obscure concepts of archival description in an approachable and straightforward manner. For this next phase we will build on the methods employed in the face-to-face trainings with the goal of translating them into a web-based platform so we can reach more people and grown the resource.

Q: What will be the focus of your efforts in the next 18-24 months?

AK: The focus of the next grant round is on building a series of video training tools to assist in using FCD–both on the front and the back end–and partnering with repositories to add more records into the system.  Partner repositories include those who contributed during the first phase of the NFAI project as well as twelve additional sites.

Q: The FCD is now hosted at Indiana University, where the IU Library and AFS developed Open Folklore, an open-access initiative touted widely in the scholarly communications community as a model partnership between scholarly societies and academic libraries. How does FCD fit into this larger landscape?

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Tim Lloyd chairs a session at AFC’s Cultural Heritage Archives Symposium on September 27, 2013. Photo by Stephen Winick

TL: Open Folklore is a portal to folklore studies scholarship in many forms (e.g., books, journals, web sites, gray literature) that is freely available online. The FCD is a closely related sister effort, which makes it possible for users to search archival collections. Because Open Folklore focuses on direct access to actual materials, and the FCD only provides access to metadata about collections, for the present users must search the FCD separately from OF, but we anticipate that in the future, as actual collection materials become accessible through the FCD, we will be able to integrate the two systems.

Q: Early on, NFAI was tasked with creating a “national union catalog” of folklore archives collections. Is that still a goal? What is the promise of a platform to create and share metadata about the nation’s folklore archival collections?

TL: As the NFAI has developed over the past four years, the project team and our universe of archival partner organizations have come to see it not just as a “union catalog” but more as an umbrella initiative that can over time provide a number of different services to the folklore archival community: public information (through metadata presented in the Folklore Collections Database) about their repositories and collections, a collective communications and advocacy voice for that community, and a potential resource for both preservation storage and public access to digitized or born-digital collection materials.

Tim Lloyd is the Executive Director of the American Folklore Society. Under his leadership, AFS was recognized by the American Library Association for its collaboration with Indiana University to create a new collaborative model for collection development and scholarly communications. Andy Kolovos is the co-director and archivist at the Vermont Folklife Center. Steve Green is the archivist at the Western Folklife Center.