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Summer 2019 Intern Reflection: Tali Gelenian

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This is a guest post from one of the 2019 Folklife Interns at the American Folklife Center, Tali Gelenian. 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 some of the collections Tali mentions. Read more about the paid internship program in a previous post.

A woman stands next to a video monitor, apparently speaking to an audience.
Tali Gelenian, a 2019 Bartis Summer Intern at the AFC, gives a presentation on her work to the AFC staff. Photo by Stephen Winick.

This summer, as a 2019 Bartis Intern at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress, I worked with considerate, curious, and enthusiastic folklorists who keep an open mind to all facets of human life as legitimate and interesting avenues for investigation. More than anything, my time at the AFC exposed me to the dedication that folklorists and other professionals bring to their work there. My coworkers have a nuanced understanding of their job at the Library of Congress, and I’ve learned that this kind of work demands reflexivity as well as self-critique. Folklorists focus on the overlooked aspects of culture and the human experience. They celebrate the legacy of female fieldworkers, occupational folklife and the everyday experiences of workers, the place-based stories of ethnic communities in Chicago, and all aspects of life in between.

I know that the folklorists at AFC have their own ways of describing and talking about the work they do. My own impressions are that the staff at the AFC are advocates and take an activist mindset to their work. Within the Library of Congress, they are at the forefront of tackling the thorny legacy of politics of cultural documentation, collaboration with communities, cultural appropriation and representation. Throughout my internship, I have had many experiences, formal and informal, that have taught me about what working as a folklorist entails. I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. It was a chance to speak candidly with seasoned folklorists about their careers, their introduction to folklore, and the aims and concerns of the discipline. Among these is prioritizing the way that ethnography and fieldwork are conducted. Folklorists are particularly oriented towards participatory and activist forms of cultural and community documentation. Speakers in the discussion talked about democratizing representation, community self-definition, and working to help communities meet their social and cultural goals. These aspects of fieldwork are not unique to folklorists, but folklorists take pride in recognizing the importance of documenting “the folk”: people from all walks of life.

Color image of Tali Geleniana and her father viewing the LOC main reading room from the observation deck.
Tali Gelenian, a 2019 Bartis Summer Intern at the AFC, shows her father the Library’s main reading room from the observation area. Photo provided by author.

One thing that I do think distinguishes folklore from other social science fields is that it has a broader scope in defining “legitimate” areas of academic interest. Folklore has a greater emphasis on expressive forms and the common people who make and use them. It deals with lore, oral history, storytelling, mythology, cuisine, craft, dress and adornment, and many other traditions. Thus, it investigates more informal elements of culture and their expression and prioritizes the voices of their informants. While most folklorists are not storytellers in the classic sense of narrators speaking their tales to an audience, they are storytellers in that most of their work presents some kind of story to an audience through writing, exhibits, media, or other cultural forms. While the storytelling role may be contentious in other disciplines, folklore is happy to work through the nuances of the “storied experience.”

Another attitude I encountered at AFC was that the collection and preservation of knowledge and information–whether that be in an archival collection, or in a book, article, song, photograph, recipe, etc–is much more useful if it’s also accompanied by access and use. AFC, like other libraries and cultural centers, is dedicated to acting as a commons, a dynamic meeting place of people, resources, and information. Being cognizant and sensitive to the needs of the people you serve is nuanced and tricky but also a critical aspect of archival management. This can be contentious and affected by relations of power, priorities, and visibility. The AFC works hard to be sensitive, flexible, and receptive to the self-identified needs of their patrons and documented individuals and communities.

The main project of this internship is a good example of this approach. The bulk of my time at the AFC was spent working with materials from the Occupational Folklife Project (OFP), a nine-year-old project that aims to document an array of occupations across the United States. The project awards the Archie Green Fellowship to independent researchers to perform fieldwork centered around a particular profession, then adds those collections to the AFC archive. The fellowship’s name honors Archie Green, a professor who left his secure position at the University of Illinois in 1969, to move to Washington and lobby Congress for the creation of a national folklife organization. In 1976, he succeeded, and the United States Congress passed the American Folklife Preservation Act, establishing the AFC at the Library of Congress.

The official story is told in several places on the Library’s website, including in AFC’s tribute to Archie after his death, the site for AFC’s Legends and Legacies Symposium, and even in an episode of the Folklife Today Podcast, which includes audio of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi telling the tale. But the AFC also has less well known folklore about Archie. For example, rumors that he survived solely on peanut butter in his first year of lobbying are a testament to his passion for folklore which, along with the peanut butter, sustained his efforts. The AFC even has a recording of a ballad composed by one of the congressional lobbyists who worked with Archie Green! The ballad was first published in the Congressional Record in 1975, then sung by its author Bruce Collins for the AFC staff in 2006. The recording has the collection number AFC 2006/052. Folklore like this is part of what makes AFC a fun and exciting workplace.

Currently, the Occupational Folklife Project has seven collections available online with the full unedited interviews as well as transcripts and occasional photographs. It is a rich and formidable collection that deserves to be showcased. This is where I came in: to increase this collection’s accessibility and engage a wider audience I have been helping launch a podcast series based on this material. I have been working closely with Nancy Groce, a folklife specialist who has been involved with the OFP since its inception. The results of our work over the past ten weeks has been America Works, a series of podcasts that range from seven to ten minutes long from select interviews in each of the collections. There are over 900 recordings in the OFP collections and one aspect of my job has been listening and summarizing interviews. I compiled this information in a document and spreadsheet that will act as a reference to help guide the interview selection and editing process in the future. I participated in recording sessions in the Jefferson Recording Studio where Nancy recorded the intros and outros for each episode. Most of my time was spent on the initial editing of the interviews using Adobe Audition, taking the full one to two hour-long interviews and producing a ten-minute episode. This not only involved general technical skills but the ability to storyboard and assemble a well-rounded and compelling story.

America Works is just one example of the numerous AFC initiatives to encourage public engagement. Others include this blog, the Folklife Today Podcast, the Center’s participation in the Library’s new crowdsourcing initiative, and many others. Rather than being the “gatekeepers” of their expansive collection, the AFC seeks to foster new conversations, collaboration, and connections through the utilization of their archives.

Image showing an Armenian language newspaper collected through the Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools project at the American Folklife Center. The label on the folder reads "Ethnic Schools Project- Armenian; AFS 23, 347-23, 718; Publications and News Clippings; Box 4, Folder 2"
An Armenian-language publication collected through the Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America project (AFC 1993/001, Box 4, Folder 2). Photo by Tali Gelenian.

The Bartis internship introduced me to wonderful new people, ideas, skills, and opportunities. One outcome of these new connections is the chance to attend the American Folklore Society’s 2019 conference in Baltimore. I am excited for the chance to continue to expand my network and learn more about the types of fieldwork and projects that folklorists have pursued. I am currently working on my honors thesis at the University of Vermont and hearing about their own research experience has informed my own work. My supervisors have encouraged me to utilize the resources at the LOC for my thesis and I have delved into various collections including California Gold, Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project, as well as collections in the midst of being processed. The excitement I have for my project is something that I also see in the projects of my coworkers. They are enthusiastic and passionate about their work and are eager to support the efforts of beginners like me. The advice I have for future Bartis interns is to take full advantage of their resources and not to be afraid to express your interests. AFC’s passion is infectious, and it is a great environment to develop your personal projects.

I departed from my internship at the AFC armed with new curiosity, questions, and excitement. The staff at the AFC are not only passionate and skilled in their work, but they bring with them integrity and consciousness. I aspire to carry that same energy and mindset into my future work and I thank everyone at the AFC who have shown me the power of folklore.

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