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New Occupational Folklife Project Interviews Go Online

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The following news comes to us from AFC senior folklife specialist Nancy Groce.

Three-quarter length photo of Peter and Blake Gendebien in a cornfield, with a tractor behind them..
Peter and Blake Gendebien in just-planted cornfield. From “Dairy Farm Workers in New York’s North Country.”

The American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress is delighted to announce that five new Occupational Folklife Project collections are now available on the Library of Congress website. They are: “Boeing Aircraft Factory Workers,” “Trash Talk: Workers in Vermont’s Waste Management Industry,” “Tobacco Workers in the Connecticut River Valley,” “Recent Immigrant Workers in Iowa’s Meatpacking Industry,” and “Dairy Farm Workers in New York’s North Country.” The collections consist mainly of audio recordings of oral history interviews, with supporting photos, videos, and documents. The five new collections join previously released collections documenting the experiences of home health care workers, beauty shop employees, electricians, circus workers, gold miners, ironworkers, racetrack employees, workers in the Port of Houston, and diverse others.

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.

Head and Shoulders portrait of David Monnie Segbie.
David Monnie Segbie, a meatpacking worker in Iowa. From “Recent Immigrant Workers in Iowa’s Meatpacking Industry.”

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 compelling 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. ”

The OFP 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 particular occupations and regional workforces.

A team of three horses is hitched to a trailer. A man and a woman work to prepare the horses and trailer.
Draft Trash crew getting the horses ready for the route, 5:00 am on an October morning, Middlebury, VT. Part of “Trash Talk: Workers in Vermont’s Waste Management Industry.”

New OFP collections available online are:

Boeing Aircraft Factory Workers

Historian Murl Riedel, then grants officer at the Kansas Humanities Council in Topeka, Kansas, received an Archie Green Fellowship to document the occupational folklife of Boeing aircraft factory workers in and around Wichita. Undertaken in cooperation with the Wichita-Sedgwick County History Museum, the oral history project specifically focuses on the occupational experiences of workers in Boeing’s massive aircraft manufacturing and maintenance facilities in Wichita, which were in the midst of being shuttered after 85 years of being a major regional employer. In addition to interviews with multigenerational Boeing factory workers, the 20 interviews in this collection include interviews with Boeing executives, salespeople, local shop owners, and Representative Mike Pompeo, who was then representing Kansas’s 4th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives. Find “Boeing Aircraft Factory Workers” at this link.

Trash Talk: Workers in Vermont’s Waste Management Industry

Virginia Nickerson, an independent scholar and documentarian in Montpelier, Vermont, received an Archie Green Fellowship to interview workers for “Trash Talk: Workers in Vermont’s Waste Management Industry.” Her collection of oral history interviews documents the occupational stories and experiences of more than two dozen people engaged in different sectors of Vermont’s waste management chain, including trash collection, sorting, marketing, processing, administration, and regulation. The project provides a picture of the daily lives of workers in an economically and environmentally important, but often hidden, industry during a time of significant technological change. Notable interviews include those with an electronic parts recycler, workers involved in ecological educational programs, and a private trash hauling company that uses horse-drawn vehicles. Trash workers discuss their daily routines, the challenges and rewards of their jobs, and their interactions and relationships with their neighbors and communities in small-town and rural Vermont. Find “Trash Talk: Workers in Vermont’s Waste Management Industry” at this link.

Recent Immigrant Workers in Iowa’s Meatpacking Industry

Oral and public historian John McKerley and his colleague Jennifer Sherer, the Director of the University of Iowa’s Labor Center in Iowa City, Iowa, received an Archie Green Fellowship to document the occupational folklife and work-related experiences of recently arrived immigrants in the large meatpacking plants of Iowa and Illinois. The workers interviewed for this project in 2015-2016 came to the United States as refugees or are recently arrived immigrants. They came to Iowa, or were resettled there as refugees, specifically to take advantage of employment opportunities in the region’s large meat-processing industry. In these interviews, new Americans from Africa, Asia, and Latin America discuss their jobs, which are often hazardous and physically demanding; explain how they found work in Iowa’s meat processing plants; and discuss their new communities and new lives in the American heartland. Many also reflect on how they are being reshaped by the state’s work culture and community life as well as how their presence is reshaping local and regional culture in Iowa and neighboring Illinois. Find “Recent Immigrant Workers in Iowa’s Meatpacking Industry” at this link.

Tobacco Workers in the Connecticut River Valley

Darcy Cahill and Dale Cahill of Bakersfield, Vermont, received an Archie Green Fellowship to document “Tobacco Workers in the Connecticut River Valley.” Tobacco farming has been a mainstay of the Connecticut River Valley’s economy since the 1600s. Few people associate tobacco farming with the Connecticut River Valley and even fewer are aware of the arduous and risky work being done in these New England tobacco sheds, under the shade tents and in the tobacco fields. These interviews document the day-to-day lives of tobacco workers, some of whom are descendants of multi-generational New England tobacco farming families in Massachusetts and Vermont. Other interviewees have come each summer for years as guest workers from Puerto Rico and other parts of the United States, Jamaica, and Latin America to plant, raise, harvest, and cure Connecticut Valley’s celebrated high-quality cigar tobacco. Find “Tobacco Workers in the Connecticut River Valley” at this link.

Dairy Farm Workers in New York’s North Country

Folklorist Hannah Harvester, program director for Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY) in Canton, New York, received an Archie Green Fellowship to document the occupational folklife of dairy farmers and farm workers in New York State’s North Country. She and her team recorded oral histories with local dairy farm owners, farm workers, agricultural agents, and others involved in the local dairy economy. New York’s North Country, a seven-county region which lies along the state’s northern border with Canada and is framed by Lake Champlain to the east and the Adirondack Mountains to the south, has a unique history and distinctive culture. Multi-generational farm owners, migrant workers, recent immigrants, agricultural agents and researchers, and local businesspeople are among those whose occupation-related stories and experiences were recorded. In addition to occupational biographies, the project also documents the rigorous daily routines involved in dairy farming; family histories, traditions and practices associated with dairy farming; the changing relationship of dairy farm owners and farm workers; the growing awareness of ecology and sustainable agriculture; the need to develop and market new products, especially organic and environmentally friendly products; and the impact of automation, technology, and government regulations. Noted folklorist and TAUNY founding director Varick Chittenden, folklorist and TAUNY Executive Director Jill Breit, and renowned photojournalist Martha Cooper were also involved in the project. Find “Dairy Farm Workers in New York’s North Country” at this link.

For access to all Occupational Folklife Project collections, visit this link.

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