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The American Folklife Center: 40 Years of Change

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The following post is part of a series of blog posts about the 40th Anniversary Year of the American Folklife Center. Visit this link to see them all!

Basic CMYKThis year the Library’s American Folklife Center (AFC) turns 40. Detailed histories of AFC are available elsewhere [1], so we thought we’d do something different in this 40th Anniversary blog post. Since the Center’s founding, the world has changed in numerous ways, some small and some sweeping. So here I present a look at some of the major, interrelated areas of change that have transformed AFC and folklife in the last four decades.

The Growing Field of Folklife

When the American Folklife Center was created in 1976, the nation was celebrating its bicentennial. People were thinking about the founding of the United States, and what it meant to be American. As part of that, many descendants of immigrants looked to their roots in the old world and celebrated the folk customs their ancestors brought with them, and those they adapted and adopted in the New World. Folklife programs that brought these forms of traditional culture to general audiences thrived, making museum exhibits, films, and public performances available to all. Folklorists strengthened their advocacy for folklife practitioners and folklife research, through giving grants, organizing apprenticeships, encouraging documentation, and providing access to archival collections.

Quilter Fannie Lee Teals from Tifton, Georgia, with her Bicentennial quilt, August 1977. Photo by Beverly Robinson. South-Central Georgia Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1982/010)
Quilter Fannie Lee Teals from Tifton, Georgia, with her Bicentennial quilt, August 1977. Photo by Beverly Robinson. South-Central Georgia Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1982/010).

AFC’s activities were (and remain) a part of this movement. Its series of free concerts, lectures, and symposia, which go back to those early days, still go on today. More than this, AFC has been a catalyst and a leader in all areas of public folklife, even from before the Center existed in a formal way. The discussions surrounding AFC’s founding, for example, influenced the National Endowment for the Arts to establish a grant category for Folk and Traditional Arts, and this has encouraged the creation of public folklore programs at the state and local levels throughout the country. As a result, folklife has been documented, presented, and preserved like never before. Throughout its 40 years, AFC has worked closely with partners at the NEA, as well as the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Park Service, and many other agencies, as well as various state and other public folklore programs, to preserve, present, and publish folklife resources.

AFC has helped generations of people become folklorists and ethnographers. The AFC publication Folklife and Fieldwork has been a standard guide for many fieldworkers, and we’re about to publish a new version for the digital age. AFC field schools have helped train fieldworkers across the U.S. and as far away as Kenya. They have provided a model for many universities, arts centers, and other organizations to hold their own fieldwork training programs. AFC gives out fellowships and awards to support research and advocacy for folklife, some of which have generated significant collections for the archive. AFC has a very active intern and volunteer program as well, giving students and other interested parties hands-on experience with folklife collections and events. Many of our interns and trainees have gone on to be leaders in the field of folklife.

Masaai Blog
Anne Sintoya Tome practices fieldwork techniques while recording an interview during the Cultural Documentation Training Program for Indigenous Communities in Il Ngwesi village, Kenya.

The Center has also made a lot of contributions on a more theoretical level. The idea of “cultural conservation” was proposed in a 1983 report from AFC, and is still prevalent today. Global interest in intellectual property issues surrounding folklore and folklife has increased, and AFC has taken on an active role in policy discussions with such organizations as WIPO and UNESCO, as well as many indigenous communities throughout the world. In this way, AFC teaches and learns about the issues involved in documenting and preserving communities’ unique cultural heritage and intellectual property, as they are embodied in folklore and folklife. [3] As the field of public folklife continues to grow and change, theoretically and practically, AFC will be there, sharing leadership with colleagues around the world.

Folklife Collections

Congress placed AFC at the Library of Congress partly because the Library already had an archive of folk culture, founded in 1928. (It was merged into the Center in 1978.) The collections of the archive had largely been built up through fieldwork performed by government organizations. Robert Winslow Gordon, John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax, and other Library of Congress staff members were masters of field collecting. The archive also became home to materials collected privately or for other agencies by Sidney Robertson Cowell, Vance Randolph, Zora Neale Hurston, Joseph S. Hall, Herbert Halpert, Helen Hartness Flanders, and many others. [2]

Joseph Hall small
Joseph S. Hall recording a story by 86-year-old Steve Woody, a life-long resident of the Smoky Mountains, in 1939. This National Park Service photo is also included in Hall’s collections at AFC.

In the 1970s, the early AFC staff saw an opportunity to renew the Library’s involvement in fieldwork, and the Center embarked on a series of productive field surveys beginning in 1977. Teams of fieldworkers interviewed people about their traditions on audio and video recordings, and also photographed and shot video of performances, rituals, and daily life. Venues included cattle ranches in Nevada, ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago, rural corners of the Blue Ridge, and the streets and factories of Paterson, New Jersey.

These field surveys remain a major resource for students of recent American history and culture. Some are online already (find them here), and AFC has digitized the rest. One of the goals in this 40th year is to get as many as possible online, and then continue in the next few years until they’re all available. We’ve made a good start to that process by releasing the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project collection, which is now available on the Library’s website. More of these collections will be added very soon.

Conjunto de Cuerdas Tipicas de Puerto Rico was just one of many groups documented by AFC fieldworkers in Chicago in 1977.

Since the 1990s, AFC has shifted acquisitions strategy from fieldwork to pursuing donations and purchases. We have acquired collections from many individual documentarians, including John Cohen, Robert Corwin, Jean Ritchie, and Bruce Jackson, and have pursued cooperative agreements with organizations such as the International Storytelling Center, the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and the Association for Cultural Equity (from which we acquired the Alan Lomax Collection).

Compared with fieldwork, assessing collections in advance of acquiring them allows for more targeted acquisitions and more precise allocation of resources. It has also led to an explosion in the quantity of documentation in the archive, without a sacrifice in quality; since 1976, the archive has grown from approximately 450,000 items to a current figure of about six million items.

Jean Ritchie, Circa 1950. Photo by George Pickow. AFC George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection.
AFC’s George Pickow and Jean Ritchie Collection is just one of many we have acquired from private collectors. This photo shows Jean Ritchie, Circa 1950, and was taken by her husband George Pickow.

Oral History

Since the Center’s early days, oral history has grown in the consciousness of the public and the priorities of the Library. The folk archive had always collected oral histories; Alan Lomax’s 1938 recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, AFC’s extraordinary collection of ex-slave narratives, and the archive’s “man on the street” interviews about the bombing of Pearl Harbor are famous examples. Such recordings have served as a model for large-scale oral history projects associated with AFC.

Lindon Bilal interviews WWII veteran Abdul Kariem in the VHP Welcome Center in the Library's Madison Buildingduring the VHP “Do Your Part” Initiative of summer 2015.
Lindon Bilal interviews WWII veteran Abdul Kariem in the VHP Welcome Center in the Library’s Madison Building during the VHP “Do Your Part” Initiative of summer 2015.

The most important oral history project to us is the Veterans History Project (VHP), an integral part of AFC since it was founded in 2000. VHP, like AFC, was founded by Congress, to “coordinate at a national level the collection of video and audio recordings of personal histories and testimonials of American war veterans….” To date, it has gathered over 100,000 individual veterans’ collections, including oral histories in video and audio formats;  photos; and journals, letters, and other manuscripts. Congress has also charged AFC with carrying out the Civil Rights History Project, to collect interviews with leaders of the civil rights movement.

The StoryCorps organization, an independent nonprofit corporation in New York, was directly inspired by AFC’s oral history collections, and from the beginning has donated its recordings to the AFC archive. Other oral history programs also donate their collections to AFC, making the Center a global leader in creating and archiving oral histories.


Computers, databases, and the internet have revolutionized the library world in the last few decades. This has entailed changes in the way we handle, describe, catalog, and find our materials, as well as changes in the way we present it to the public.

Like most library professionals, processing archivist Valda Morris accomplishes most of her work on a networked computer. Photograph by Kate Stewart.
Like most library professionals these days, processing archivist Valda Morris accomplishes most of her work on a networked computer. Photograph by Kate Stewart.

Most of the advances in databases that allowed libraries to move beyond card catalogs occurred in the last 40 years. This means that AFC had to enter into the Library’s main catalog everything that previously was cataloged only on paper, while also keeping pace with new materials coming in. Describing and cataloging collections have a complex set of procedures all their own, and these are constantly being updated as technology and library science advance. AFC has therefore employed full-time catalogers and archivists for many years, and they work with other such professionals throughout the Library.

Responding to years of requests from researchers, we’ve also digitized our item-level card catalog of disc-era sound recordings, making it searchable by keywords, allowing researchers for the first time to look up not only song titles and musicians, but all our banjo recordings from that era, or all recordings described as being in a particular language or a particular town. (Find that resource here.) With these new tools, people have access to a staggering amount of information about our collections from any computer with internet access.

Of course, information about collections is helpful, but people also want access to collection materials themselves. It’s in this area that that technology has made the most dramatic changes. The advent of the World Wide Web, with its ability to present text, images, sound, and video in an integrated user interface, makes us naturally crave online access to multiformat collections. AFC was quick to seize the opportunity presented by the Web; from Spanish-language hymns of New Mexico to Finnish runic songs in California, and from interviews about food in West Virginia to citizens’ responses to Pearl Harbor, AFC put many of its legacy and brand-new treasures online in the early days of the Web. But there’s much more to do. AFC collections are primarily documentation of traditional culture and arts, including manuscripts, photographs, and sound and video recordings in every conceivable format, from cylinders and wire recordings to Beta tapes and 16 mm film. Digitizing continues to this day, with more collections going online all the time.  (Find all our online collections here.)

Members of the card catalog digitization project team pose in the Folklife Center Reading Room, holding a facsimile of the card for Lead Belly’s classic song “Irene.” L-r: Nathan Trail (Network Development and MARC Standards Office), Andrew Cook (Office of Strategic Initiatives), Jennifer Cutting (AFC), Betsy Miller (Network Development and MARC Standards Office), Michael Taft (AFC), Mike Fitzella (Office of Strategic Initiatives), Judy Ng (AFC), John Barton (AFC). Photo by Stephen Winick, 2007.

We also share some collections with other institutions that can host them online; the Alan Lomax Collection at the Association for Cultural Equity, as well as smaller Lomax presentations in Louisiana and Kentucky, are examples. Links to all our online collection materials can be found on our own site.

While digitizing such legacy collections is a priority, the original material in our new collections is increasingly born digital—in fact, AFC is one of the leading divisions at the Library in our proportion of born-digital acquisitions. This means that, in addition to manuscripts, audio tapes, and slides, we’re acquiring large numbers of digital files in many formats. These require entirely different procedures to preserve them, and to serve them to researchers and the public. AFC has a great team in place, including a digital assets manager, archivists, and reference specialists trained to handle digital objects. (You can read about the work some of these people do on both analog and digital collections in a recent blog post by Julia Kim.)

This collection of recording technology demonstrates the changes that have occurred in audio and photographic documentation during the existence of the Center’s archive. AFC has materials in all the formats represented here, from cylinders and wire recordings to material recorded on mobile phones. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Technology has also changed the way we do fieldwork and the way we think about collecting.  Since AFC was founded, professional portable recording machines have gone from open-reel tapes to cassettes, and through a variety of technologies such as DAT and minidisc, to reliable solid-state digital recorders. Cameras and video have gone through similar changes. AFC staff members have kept up with it all in preparing ourselves to train fieldworkers.

The fact that many people have networked cameras and recording devices with them at all times–in the form of mobile phones–changes the environment, making everyone a potential documentarian. AFC is adapting to collections done in new formats and in new ways, including such innovative approaches as the app. We’re also increasingly thinking about what it means to live in a world where documentation is easier than ever before.

At the same time, young people have developed an interest in older technologies, including vinyl records, instantaneous discs, and even cylinder recording, leading to such initiatives as the 78 Project, who visited us to explain their approach as part of our lecture series. AFC is keenly aware of its role as one the nation’s leading custodians of audio recorded on such media. The current generation’s simultaneous facility with new technology and love of antique gear and vintage sounds makes it an exciting time for folklife!

Another change brought about by technology brings us full circle to AFC’s role in thinking about the field of folklife in the 21st century. It is increasingly clear that online communities are creating digital culture, much of which is itself folklife. Image macros, “reaction gifs,” and visual parodies, as well as jargon, language play, and narrative genres such as “copypasta” and “creepypasta” are all aspects of this new online culture. Our staff is constantly engaged in critical thinking about such digital folklife, which we apply to our collections and programming. (You can read a little about those ideas here and here, and a bit about where they might take AFC here and here.)

Happily, the change in technology also makes it easier for you to interact with and keep in touch with AFC. Our concerts, lectures, and symposia are shot on video and put online as webcasts. Our events are publicized through social media and email. Please sign up for our RSS and email list, like our Facebook page (on which we share collection items daily), and subscribe to this blog (if you haven’t already!) And, of course, visit us on our homepage. We’d love to have your feedback on our 40 years of work, and would especially love for you to follow our work as we go forward into the bright future we see for folklife.


1. Alan Jabbour’s 20-year retrospective of the center (part 1 is here and part 2 is here) is the most detailed account of the first 20 years of the Center.  Jim Hardin’s work in the AFC Illustrated Guide is more recent, and Nancy Groce’s more succinct history brings us almost up to date.

2.  For more, you can read James Hardin’s 75-year history of the Center’s archive.

3. Folklore and folklife are often called “cultural heritage” in international legal contexts, and divided into “intangible” genres such as spoken folklore and traditional knowledge, and “tangible” ones such as material culture.  For that reason, AFC is often involved in discussions of “intangible cultural heritage.”


  1. I loved reading this! I worked as an intern at the Archive of American Folk Song, later the Archive of Folk Culture, in the mid-1970s when Joe Hickerson and Gerry Parsons led the department. I was thrilled to see the bibliography I created during the internship on “Women in Folk Music” on the publications list for decades afterwards as well. So much of what I learned there inspired my future work. Today I work for the National Park Service as an archivist serving the Northeast Region in Boston using many of the skills I first learned there. Best wishes to all.

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