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Intern reflection: Claire Denny

This is a guest post by our Fall 2019 volunteer intern, Claire Denny. She is currently in her second term as a Master’s degree student in the Folklore Program at George Mason University.

When I received a phone call this past summer from the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center (AFC), I had to compose myself before answering the phone. I was in the throes of putting together a schedule for my first semester of graduate school at George Mason University, and as an aspiring folklorist, my academic advisor suggested applying to the AFC for an internship. Upon hanging up the phone after learning I had been offered a position, my head flooded with questions. What even is the AFC? What do they do? What will I be working on? Is there a coffee shop near the Library? I haven’t even attended a folklore class–will my background and experiences be enough to carry me through the internship?

Sarah Fortin, a net maker working in the New Bedford (MA) fishery, documented during fieldwork for a 2016 project funded by an Archie Green Fellowship. The full collection of materials from this project will be on the Library’s website soon, but click on the photo to read more about “Working on the Waterfront.” Photograph by Philip Mello.

These questions flew out the window the moment I arrived at the Library of Congress, as my main question became, “Where the heck am I”? Every single person I met was welcoming, and the AFC staff situated on Deck A of the Jefferson building seemed to be the most knowledgeable and interesting bunch of folks. I met my supervisors and was given my project: assisting with a new podcast series entitled America Works. I was introduced to the Occupational Folklife Project (OFP), source for the podcast content, and began sifting through the collections posted on the Library’s website. After a few weeks I began to piece together my first podcast episode and became familiar with this audio narrative process. I spent my days listening to interviews with contemporary workers from all across the United States. These individuals were willing to share their occupational stories, resulting in the creation of a rich body of occupational folklife housed at the AFC.

Soon I determined to listen to as many interviews as possible, for these each provided me with at least one new nugget of information about jobs I was unfamiliar with: wig makers, net makers, horse tattooists, and a host of others. As Thanksgiving approached, I knew my family and friends would want to know about my internship at the Library of Congress. I could easily describe the mechanics of the work I was engaging in, but that would gloss over the heart and significance of the project. The question remained: how would I describe the importance of the Occupational Folklife Project and the forthcoming America Works series?

During the fall semester I took a course in public folkore. Our professor wanted to take advantage of our close proximity to D.C, and put together a fantastic, all day field trip to public folklore institutions in the city. Our day began at the AFC and during an introductory overview, our small group sat around a table learning about ongoing projects at the Center, including the Occupational Folklife Project. After a few minutes, one of my classmates raised her hand and asked if she could share something. She explained that she has been a healthcare worker for some time, but never felt as though the general public valued her work and skill set. She articulated that learning about the OFP brought her a renewed sense of self, because she now knew that a renowned institution such as the American Folklife Center values people like her and their stories. As I sat next to my classmate and listened to her speak I began to look around, and I saw that everyone in the room was touched by her remarks, myself included. I smiled, for I knew at that moment she had provided me with the answer I could give to my family’s imminent question.

The value of the Occupational Folklife Project and the America Works podcast series lies in the stories collected and preserved, those of working people and their lives. By engaging with the online collections and listening to the podcasts, individuals are able to learn about the multitude of contemporary occupations present throughout our nation. We hear from workers directly and have the opportunity to learn from them about their day to day lives. I look forward to listening to the podcast episodes once they are released, and I hope you tune in to listen to them as well.

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