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New Occupational Folklife Project Interviews Go Online

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Young man Alex Chavis with fish totes at Bergie's Seafood.
Wilmor “Alexander” Chavis is from El Salvador and has been working at Bergie’s Seafood for 11 1/2 years. He has learned all of the tasks involved with processing fish and preparing orders for customers. He enjoys his job and teaching new workers how to cut and pack fish. He considers Bergie’s his second home. Photo by Phillip Mello. Find the interview and photo here.

This post was written with Nancy Groce, the coordinator of the Occupational Folklife Project for AFC.

The American Folklife Center is delighted to announce that four new Occupational Folklife Project collections are now available on the Library of Congress website. They are “Working the Waterfront: New Bedford, Massachusetts;” “Funeral Service Workers in the Carolinas;” “Illuminating History: Union Electricians in New York City;” and “Homeless Shelter Workers in the Upper Midwest.” The collections consist mainly of audio recordings of oral history interviews, with supporting photos and documents. The four new collections join previously released collections documenting the experiences of home health care workers, beauty shop employees, circus workers, gold miners, ironworkers, racetrack employees, and workers in the Port of Houston.

A woman dressed in protective gear sits on top of a ladder holding wires
Kim Spicer working at the Mondrian Hotel (permanently closed), 9 Crosby Street, NY, for Gateway Electric (now Five Star), as a 3rd Year Apprentice. Find the interview and photos here.

Through the Occupational Folklife Project (OFP), the AFC has now amassed more than 1,000 interviews with hundreds of contemporary American workers representing scores of trades and occupations. These hour-long oral history interviews feature workers discussing their current jobs, formative work experiences, training, aspirations, occupational communities, hopes for the future, and on-the-job challenges and rewards. They tell stories of how workers learned their trades, their skills and work routines, legendary jobs (good and bad), respected mentors, and flamboyant co-workers. They document the knowledge, dedication and insights of American workers, and add workers’ voices to the permanent record of America’s history preserved at the Library of Congress, America’s national library. Adding the collections to the Library of Congress website enables researchers, educators, and members of the public to access them from their homes, schools, and local libraries. OFP interviews can also be accessed at the AFC’s Reading Room at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

AFC Director Betsy Peterson notes:

AFC’s innovative Occupational Folklife Project enables researchers and members of the public to have direct access to hundreds of hours of fieldwork with some of America’s most eloquent, engaging, and passionate spokespeople for the trades and occupations that shape our shared national culture. These oral histories not only enrich our current understanding of our fellow Americans, but will inform scholars and researchers for generations to come about the lives of workers at the beginning of the 21st century. Listeners will be able to access the oral histories, images and fieldwork that previously could be accessed only by visiting the Library of Congress in Washington.

New OFP collections available online are:

Working the Waterfront: New Bedford, Massachusetts

Jeff Cook, one of the owners of New Bedford Welding Supply in New Bedford, MA
Jeff Cook, one of the owners of New Bedford Welding Supply in New Bedford, MA, studied welding in high school and college and has worked his way up in his family business. He discusses the role of New Bedford Welding Supply in the fishing industry, the changes in welding equipment over the years, the role of his family members in the family business and the positive and negative aspects of his job. Photo by Phillip Mello. Find the interview and photo here.

The New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center (NBFHC) received an Archie Green Fellowship to document workers on the New Bedford, Massachusetts, waterfront for the Occupational Folklife Project (OFP). Folklorist and NBFHC Executive Director Laura Orleans, working with anthropologists Madeleine Hall-Arber and Corinn Williams and oral historian Fred Calabretta, recorded oral histories with 58 workers involved in diverse fishing-related trades on the New Bedford waterfront. Documented tradespeople range from fish packers to net makers, navigational electronic technicians to marine divers, and maritime upholsterers to ice house workers. The individual interviews are supplemented by striking workplace portraits taken by gifted New Bedford photographer Phillip Mello, who was also interviewed about his job as general manager at Bergie’s Seafood. Mello has been taking photographs of his fellow waterfront workers since 1975, and his work is currently on exhibit at the American Folklife Center.

Funeral Services Workers in the Carolinas

Funeral director Heather Campbell Hill posing next to green burial trundle and bamboo shroud at Renaissance Funeral Home, Raleigh, NC
Funeral director Heather Campbell Hill posing next to green burial trundle and bamboo shroud at Renaissance Funeral Home, Raleigh, NC.  Photo by Sarah Bryan. Find the interview and photo here.

Folklorist Sarah Bryan of Durham, North Carolina, received an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center to document the work of funeral services workers in North and South Carolina. She explored how, through their work, funeral service workers engage with the funerary folklore and religious beliefs of diverse Carolina communities, including African American, Gullah, Jewish, Scottish and Scots-Irish, as well as more recently arrived immigrant groups. Interviewees included directors of multi-generational funeral homes and other funeral workers from diverse backgrounds and experiences. A total of 16 interviews are included in this collection; many are accompanied by photographs and historical images.

Homeless Shelter Workers in the Upper Midwest

Two women sit at a table with fabric and ribbons on it. Through an open door, we see men and boys in the next room.
Detail from a photo showing Lorraine Davis working with the women at a family social night where women and girls sew and bead regalia for powwow and the men and boys make drums and drumsticks in the next room.  Photo by Cathy ten Broeke.  Find the interview and photos here.

Social services worker, writer, and documentarian Margaret Miles of Minneapolis, Minnesota, received an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center to document workers in the emergency homeless services in three interrelated Midwestern urban centers: Bismarck, North Dakota; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; and Chicago, Illinois. She recorded interviews with overnight shelter advocates, meal and clothing center coordinators, street outreach workers, daytime drop-in supervisors, and housing case managers and others who work to resolve housing issues and assist individuals with financial crises, employment, addiction, illness, or mental health concerns. As she notes: their work makes them “master-navigators of complex systems such as healthcare, social security, corrections, veterans’ benefits, and tenant-landlord law.” This collection consists of 18 interviews with shelter workers serving diverse communities of clients, including ex-offenders, abused women, LGBT and Native American youth, and individuals with HIV/AIDS. Many of the interviews are accompanied by images by Miles’s co-documentarian, photographer Catherine ten Broeke. Troyd Geist, Folklorist for the North Dakota Arts Council, served as a consultant to the project.

Illuminating History: Union Electricians in New York City

A group of men raise red plastic cups, standing on an elevated train track.
Photograph of “Niel” Skeahan and fellow electricians working on John F. Kennedy AirTrain, 2003. Find the interview and photos here.

New York researcher and electrician Jaime Lopez, in affiliation with SUNY Empire State College’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies (HVASLS) and The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW, Local #3) in Queens, New York, received an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center to document the occupational culture of urban IBEW electricians, who “through manufacture, installation, and maintenance serve the greater New York City area.” Lopez worked with a research team that included labor faculty Barrie Cline and labor historian Anne D’Orazio from HVASLS, Queens-based artist/documentarian Setare S. Arashloo, and Local #3 electrician Paul Vance. Folklorist Naomi Sturm served as consultant to the project. The team recorded 22 oral histories with IBEW Local #3 electricians reflecting a wide range of ages, backgrounds, experiences, and occupational specialties. Many interviews are accompanied by worksite photographs and photographs of union-related activities.

The Occupational Folklife Project was launched in 2010. It is funded in part by AFC’s Archie Green Fellowships, which support teams of researchers throughout the United States, who perform interviews documenting a particular occupation. On the Library of congress website, you can get access to all OFP collections; read about the OFP’s history and development; and find out how to apply for Archie Green Fellowships and which projects have received them in the past.


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