This is a guest post from one of the 2019 Folklife Interns at the American Folklife Center, Edward Wang. This internship program was launched in the summer of 2018 through a generous gift from the late Peter Bartis, a long-time staff member at the AFC and a tireless proponent of folklife–as well as a fieldworker on the collection Ed discusses. Read more about the paid internship program in a previous post.
Reflecting on my time this summer as one of the two Bartis interns at the American Folklife Center, I found myself thinking about the skills I learned, the knowledge I acquired, and the immense gratitude I feel for having been offered this valuable professional and educational opportunity.
As a master’s student in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, my background prior to graduate school was primarily in classical music. Fortunately, at Wesleyan I took an elective seminar on applied ethnomusicology, public-facing exhibitions, and archives. This course turned out to be excellent preparation for my work at the Center.
My primary project at the AFC involved drafting, gathering assets for, and building a Story Map illustrating cultural community centers documented in the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project collection. Story Maps are a mode of digital storytelling that integrate geographic data, multimedia, and text in a seamless format optimized for Web browsing. They allow for compelling narrative pathways into a collection, pathways that are accessible for both newcomers and seasoned researchers.
The final product, “Homegrown Pride: Exploring Chicago’s Community Centers,” is a map- and media- centered exploration of fourteen Chicago cultural community centers in the 1970s. This map focusing on Chicago community centers should be publicly available online soon.
In deciding what to write and which collection items to feature, I chose to foreground the people and histories that shaped the creation of these community centers. While doing collections research, I was struck by just how many of these institutions had grassroots origins. For example, the Chicago collection contains interviews with Dr. Margaret Burroughs, who started the DuSable Museum of African American History out of her living room collection, and Kurt Mathiasson, a restaurateur, singer and multi-instrumentalist who founded the Swedish-American Museum.
Using community centers as a “window” into the lives of individuals allowed me to highlight impactful moments during the Chicago project fieldwork. For instance, according to his own field notes from the project, folklorist Jens Lund had tears in his eyes as he listened to Mathiasson sing a Swedish ballad that evoked “longing for family, sweetheart, and landscape left behind.” The many fieldworkers who worked on the Chicago project, such as Lund, are also prominently featured in my StoryMap through their own written excerpts and photo appearances with the individuals they documented.
As part of my internship, I also began drafting a storyline for a second potential Story Map focusing on longstanding neighborhood establishments that operated as cultural spaces. Institutions such as singing societies, bakeries, and delis, thrived in times before assimilation changed the face of many Chicago neighborhoods. The Chicago digital collection has the potential to tell so many varied, unique stories, and I hope that my work will motivate more people to make use of this unparalleled resource at the American Folklife Center.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my internship was being able to learn from the wonderful and helpful colleagues in the American Folklife Center, as well as the wider Library of Congress. Going to work with such a vibrant group was a blessing. I received useful feedback on my StoryMap from people with experiences as diverse as Megan Harris from the Veterans History Project, who co-authored the excellent “D-Day Journeys” Story Map, to Nancy Groce, whose own writing and sage advice greatly influenced my time here, to Carl Fleischhauer, who took many of the photos in the Chicago collection and could thus offer his own experience of being at the locations that I wrote about. I also collaborated extensively with Michelle Stefano, who has been deeply involved in efforts to introduce the historically-important Chicago Ethnic Arts Project collection to current residents of the city. Aside from working on the Story Map project, I helped patrons in the reading room, improved collection metadata, and learned about the general reference work from Judith Gray and Todd Harvey—all of which helped me to see the wide array of resources that the American Folklife Center offers to the public.
As I proceed in my studies to be an ethnomusicologist, I am confident I will make use of the skills I have acquired in my short time at the American Folklife Center. For example, one tangible skill I’ve honed this summer while working on the Story Map project is tailoring my writing toward a public, rather than academic, audience. The current shift in academia toward bringing our skill sets into the community means that regardless of whether I end up in the academy or the public sector, I will be equipped to communicate and inspire others using my newly acquired knowledge of archives and digital narrative-building.