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Ask Us Anything: Our Most Frequently Asked Questions

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October was American Archives Month, and last Thursday was Ask an Archivist Day. In honor of that event (although a little late), we decided to compile a list of Frequently Asked Questions that we often get– not necessarily reference questions, but those from our own friends and family or when we introduce ourselves as employees of the American Folklife Center or the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. For our “official” Frequently Asked Questions, we have two separate lists on the American Folklife Center and Veterans History Project websites.

Q: Do you sponsor the Folklife Festival? I love going to that!

A: The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, two weeks of spectacular performances, crafts, and food on the National Mall, is sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. While we host the Homegrown Concert Series in the summer in the Coolidge Auditorium and feature some of the same performers, and we’ve had an information table at the festival in the past, we don’t sponsor it or plan it. We are all big fans of the festival and attend every year (some of us have even worked at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in our past lives). But don’t feel bad about mixing us up: they often get “I love StoryCorps!” Nope, that’s us.

Winyo performs in the Coolidge Auditorium on July 14, 2014. They also played at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which featured performers from Kenya and China. Photograph by Steve Winick.
Winyo performs in the Coolidge Auditorium on July 14, 2014. This band also played at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which featured performers from Kenya and China. Photograph by Steve Winick.

Q: Do you have the Constitution?

A: That famous document is on display at the National Archives, another one of our pals. Besides the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they also have some amazing exhibits and millions of archival items from the federal government.

Q: Do you have collections only about American folklife?

A: Our collections document cultures from all over the world. Here’s a geographical guide that organizes the collections by country.

Q: Do you check out books all day?

A: We have a non-circulating reference book collection in the reading room that researchers can access themselves. We do fetch archival items for researchers from our stacks every day, though! If you want to check out a book to read (only in the Library of Congress reading rooms) you can order it through the library catalog and request it to be delivered either to the Main Reading Room in the Jefferson building or the Science and Business Reading Room in the Adams building.

Valda Morris listens to reggae while working on an EAD finding aid. Photograph by Kate Stewart.
Valda Morris listens to reggae while working on an EAD finding aid. Photograph by Kate Stewart.

Q: Do you get to listen to music/read books all day?

A: Some of us, especially the catalogers and archivists, work under our headphones when not in meetings or pushing carts around (upbeat music really helps keep our statistics up). We look up a lot of facts in reference books, and occasionally we get to read the books written by the presenters in our Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series.

Q: Do you have all of those Lomax recordings?

A: Yes, we certainly do. The Lomax family collections, along with oral histories from StoryCorps and the Veterans History Project, are among our most-requested items.

Q: You must really love folktales.

A: Of course! We also love folk songs, oral histories, jokes, games, holidays, crafts, and foodways.

Q:  Why aren’t all of your archive’s collection items available online?

A: As a matter of fact, we have already placed over 1,000 hours of audiovisual recordings and (we don’t even know how many) manuscripts and photographs online. The online collections and presentations page of the American Folklife Center website features a list of these. On a specific digital collection’s website, you can browse by the collector or performer’s name, song title, geographical place, and sometimes even the performer’s ethnic or cultural group. Within the next two years, we are planning to digitize and make available on our website the entirety of the regional documentary field survey projects that the AFC sponsored in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Veterans History Project selects collections for digitization based upon preservation needs. Curatorial selection for online exhibits also informs the selection. This is a relatively slow but ongoing process. At this time, about 10% of the collections in VHP have been digitized and can be viewed online. When searching the VHP Catalog, digitized collections are identified by a “view digital collections” button.

Given our present staff and funding level, we are very fortunate to have been able to digitize and make available as many collection materials as we have that do not have copyright restrictions. To listen to collection material that is not yet online, we invite you to: 1) come to our Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress, where one of our helpful reference librarians will show you to your own listening station; or 2) order copies of the material that interests you.

Q: I have some 78s. Are they valuable?

A: “Value” can mean different things–sentimental value, market value, historical value–and so you start by asking yourself: what do I want to know? Are these records a commodity or a keepsake? Once you know that, you can pursue the matter of value further. But even if they don’t have a dollar value, and you can still appreciate them as objects or (if you have the right playback equipment) as audio recordings. If you’re interested in what exactly we collect, read more here about our acquisitions policies.

Q: Do you have any job openings or internships?

A: Sometimes and yes!

Q: Do you have any records about a veteran in my family?

A: The Veterans History Project only has material relating to those veterans who have participated in the Veterans History Project. In other words, we do not have records or collections relating to every veteran who has served. If you’re researching your relative’s military service, the first place to start would be the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which keeps official military records, and has resources online specifically about this topic.

Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), 1948. Photograph by Austin Wilder. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).
Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), 1948. Photograph by Austin Wilder. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

And finally, this one is from Cathy Kerst, Folklife Specialist and Cataloger:

“One of my most memorable queries about the Center and its audio collections came about during a trip to London during the 2013 Easter holiday. I accompanied a British friend with her fiancé and his extended family for an Easter Sunday dinner in an old rambling cottage perched on the White Cliffs of Dover–from which you could see the lights of Calais in France, as the sun went down.

At the dinner table, in the lull between fish pie and the serving of dessert, a trio of somewhat tipsy brothers in their seventies launched lustily into a string of Lead Belly songs that had been popular amongst their friends in the mid-1950s, starting with “Rock Island Line.” I’m sure they had sung these songs many times before. When they heard that I worked in an archive that housed a large number of Lead Belly songs, they pressed me to provide them with digital recordings of the recordings we had in the collections!

This is one of a number of queries from people who assume that, if we have recordings in our collections, they either must be in the public domain and/or they are available for us to copy and distribute freely. Of course, I had to say no.

It was, however, a joy to hear their delight at singing the Lead Belly songs– and to realize the often incredible reach of the music we have in our archive.”


  1. Thank you for this helpful and fun list of queries/answers!

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