Top of page

Folklorists partner with archives to create ‘living archives’ of folk arts documentation

Share this post:

In April, Maryland Traditions, a program of the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC), transferred its archives to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Sustainability of folklore fieldwork collections is a pressing issue for many state folk arts agencies throughout the United States. I recently had the opportunity to talk with state folklorist Clifford Murphy about how his agency addressed the issue, and what it was like working with an institutional archives to make the collection publicly accessible for the first time.

Cliff Murphy
Maryland state folklorist Clifford Murphy introduces the Zionaires on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium, July 24, 2008.

Q: Can you briefly describe the size and nature of the collection? What was the state of preservation and access to it prior to its transfer to UMBC?

Cliff: In the 21st century vernacular, you could say our collections had “issues,” but we have worked through them on account of intensive archival therapy over the past two years. The collection is now resting comfortably at UMBC. It breaks down into analog and digital periods. Overall, it’s approximately 131 cubic feet of material, and 100-plus gigabytes of digital information. The analog materials were collected between 1974 and 2000. They had (mostly) survived a series of floods and fires, which had caused us to lose intellectual control of the materials. When the MSAC offices were moved in 2000, the archives were put into storage at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis. Another portion of the analog materials were stored in Silver Spring by the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA). Meanwhile, the MSAC folklife program entered the digital age, and all fieldwork conducted from that point onward was recorded digitally. So the preservation issues surrounding the analog materials were more or less frozen in amber for thirteen years. The vast majority of those materials are musical recordings and interviews on analog tape. Nearly all of the tapes are in their original boxes, which is good, as the boxes often contain the only written record of what exists on the tapes. The State Archives developed a basic inventory of the material, which was expanded on by Greg C. Adams and Hannah Rogers, two archivists and ethnomusicologists who we were fortunate enough to hire to get the materials organized for transfer/unification at UMBC.

Q: What prompted you to pursue this partnership with an institutional archives? How did you go about it? What were the steps in the process?

Cliff: This answers part of your previous question, which has to do with access. Basically, the Maryland State Arts Council is not built to function like a library or research archives. So while the fieldwork was collected with the intention of becoming a public resource, it was not easily accessed by the public. My predecessors at Maryland Traditions, Rory Turner and Elaine Eff, built an online digital archival resource around 2005-06, but we simply did not have the infrastructure or resources to make the archives the kind of accessible community resource that they should be. So we began looking for a partner.

Maryland Traditions–the MSAC state folklife program–has a series of regional folklife partners around the state. Each has its own fieldwork agenda, and each carries out and archives fieldwork at its home institution. In 2010, we launched a new partnership with UMBC. In 2011, we (MSAC and UMBC) collaboratively hired Dr. Michelle Stefano to be the folklorist-in-residence at UMBC. She has done terrific work there, and has won many friends for Maryland Traditions within the faculty and administration there. The discussions about locating the central Maryland Traditions folklife archives at UMBC flowed naturally out of that partnership. UMBC was centrally located within the state, it has an excellent facility and an outstanding special collections staff with deep and genuine interest in Maryland folklife. And–this is important–they could connect the materials to the entirety of the University of Maryland Library System, meaning the collections could reach far more people statewide through the state university system. To say that this expanded public access to the collections really doesn’t do it justice–this is a major democratizing step for our archives.

This photo, taken by Carl Fleischhauer for AFC, shows George Carey (front) and Alex Kellam (back) in Kellam’s boat on the Chesapeake Bay. Its identifying number is AFC 1977/008 ph076. Carey was Maryland’s first state folklorist. He took part in an AFC project to collect the stories and songs of waterman Alex Kellam in 1977 with Fleischhauer, when this photo was taken. Carey passed away in March 2013.

For those interested in the history of public sector folklore, the Maryland Folklife Program was founded in 1974, but its roots stretch back to 1967 when Spiro Agnew was Governor of Maryland. The Agnew administration launched a commission on the study of folklore in Maryland, which was directed by folklorist George Carey, a Richard Dorson protégé who has collections in the American Folkife Center’s archives. Carey’s commission produced a report in 1970 calling for the creation of a state folklorist position, the creation of a state archive of Maryland folklife, and the creation of a state folklife center. They succeeded in the first recommendation: Alan Jabbour at the NEA and MSAC Executive Director Jim Backas hired George Carey to be the first state folklorist in 1974 (MSAC’s program is the longest-running in the nation). Carey created the archive, but the collections have not been publicly accessible until now under our partnership with UMBC. So not only has this has been a long-time coming, it (an accessible folklife archive) is also part of the original conception of what a state folklife program should offer.

Q: Like most ethnographic documentation, the Maryland Traditions collection includes large quantities of time-based media: film, audio and video recordings at risk of loss due to format obsolescence and deterioration. How did you and your partners at UMBC approach these issues?

Cliff: This is something we will be dealing with for a while. The short answer is this: in 2009 we worked with the NCTA to conduct a formal assessment of our analog collections. Steve Green of the Western Folklife Center carried out this work for us. We hoped that we might use the document to chart a course for digitizing the materials. We then hired Greg Adams in 2010 to conduct a more in-depth assessment and inventory of the materials. That same year, we were fortunate to be a part of the American Folklore Society’s National Folklore Archives Initiative (NFAI),which provided us with valuable funds and structure to begin processing the collections, drafting finding aids, and so forth. Greg and Hannah worked closely with the materials and developed priority lists for digitization of materials–identifying those most at-risk portions of the collections, whether they be old slide photographs that had water damage, tapes with sticky-shed, or brittle DAT tapes. We have been very successful at migrating digital information from anachronistic formats. The long-term outlook on the reel-to-reel tapes is positive at this point, but looks like a very tall mountain to climb in the short term.

Q: Folklorists are known for constantly repurposing field documentation in publications, exhibits, and new projects. How did you reconcile this need for reuse and access with the competing need to preserve this material in an archives?

Cliff: This is an area in which I hope our partnership with UMBC can develop an innovative blueprint for “living archives” work. What I mean is this: both MSAC and UMBC see that the greatest value in these collections is their connection to living communities and traditions. In order for this archive to achieve its greatest value and usefulness to scholars and to the people of Maryland, there needs to be nuance and understanding built into the partnership framework. UMBC wants to see us use this material, they want to see students and faculty using the material, and they want the residents of Maryland to use them. It is a work in progress, but one that the Special Collections staff and Maryland Traditions have had fun navigating.

Public folklorists are not noted for their organizational skills, at least when it comes to archiving their materials. I believe that this stems from a lack of checks and balances in the system. Our host agencies are not so much concerned about our archives as they are about our grantmaking and public programs work. They appreciate that our effectiveness in these realms comes from our fieldwork, but the archives are not at the core mission of many state arts agencies. The partnership with UMBC is a positive influence in this respect, as it makes us accountable for good organizational archival principles. It also puts us on a regular accession schedule – so this, we hope, will help prevent archival processing from piling up on our desks. Again, this feeds into the idea of accessibility of the collections; the more quickly we can accession of fieldwork and integrate it into the library system, the more readily we serve the public through our fieldwork.

Q: How did Maryland Traditions and UMBC decide to manage rights to the collection and the ethical obligations inherent in documenting people?

Very carefully! Fieldwork carried out by Maryland Traditions always involves release forms developed and vetted by the state Attorney General’s office. When we carry out fieldwork, we discuss the potential uses of any archived fieldwork. Typically, this is seen as a point of pride for many of those individuals and communities who we document. Sometimes–rarely, really–the notion that these conversations will wind up in an archive causes people to balk and to decline to be interviewed or otherwise documented. And in very special circumstances we have carried out recordings in which the person being documented has agreed to do so if their name is withheld from the permanent record.

Regarding the older, analog materials, a good number of these materials have been separated from their original release forms. While it would be easy to see this as a major disappointment, we have embraced it as an interesting challenge to reconnect with these older fieldwork communities. Doing so allows us the opportunity to renew our relationships with certain cultural communities, make them aware that there are heritage materials pertinent to them in the state folklife collection, and allows us to talk about signing new releases that will make those older materials accessible. We have had some very moving successes in that regard, and it is humbling to see how fondly so many communities recollect their past encounters with our folklorist predecessors!

Q: For other public sector folklorists who might want to pursue this kind of partnership, what advice do you have to offer them?

Go for it. I see this as an important step towards a vibrant future for our discipline. Folklife programs in all states go through periods of instability and uncertainty. In the distant past, such instability has moved departing state folklorists to take their fieldwork home with them. Having an archival partner can help stabilize collections for the communities we serve. Interestingly, regarding stabilizing forces, we have learned that the new archival partnership with UMBC has become a source of increased institutional credibility – with cultural communities, with scholars, with potential folklife partners, with council/board members, within state government, with elected officials, and with potential funders. We have yet to encounter any situation in which having this partnership is seen as a liability.

On a related note, during our two-year period in which we carried out assessments of our collections, we were also applying for grants to process and digitize the materials. While we were fortunate to get strong support from respected scholars and institutions for these grants, we were largely unsuccessful – with the notable exception of the NFAI grant. Instead, what we discovered–and this also played into our decision to talk with UMBC about relocating the collections there–was that funders wanted to see a robust archival infrastructure behind our digitization and processing efforts. This meant that they were not satisfied with the status quo here, and wished to see us with a sophisticated archival infrastructure behind us. Our partnership with UMBC resolves that issue, and I am far more optimistic about our future regarding funding grants than I was previously.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *