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“Now Everyone in the World Can See This”: Folklife and the Internet

This is my last post for Folklife Today as I retire on December 31. I find myself thinking about how I got to this point.  I began as a Fellow in a program for graduate students at the American Folklife Center in 1986. The American Folklife Center Internship Program is a similar program that continues today. I came back to work processing collections and then became an archivist, a webmaster, and a librarian.

Portrait of a woman in front of book shelf

Stephanie Hall in the AFC Reading Room. Photo courtesy of author.

Through my career runs a thread of working with collections to get them into the hands of researchers, students, and the public in new ways. In 1991, I was among one of the first librarians and archivists to get an email account.  I was aware of the use of the internet in the scientific community and joined a small group of staff at the Library of Congress (LOC) who wanted to learn more about how the internet would help libraries. The LOC started putting images and text from in-person exhibits up on the internet as downloadable files, but at that time there was no framework to help users connect to these other than file directories. Tom Littlejohn, a technology expert, suggested to our little group that an experimental Gopher server was a feasible project–and off we went to try learning enough Unix and HTML to create such a thing.  Many of us worked on this project in our off hours, as this was not yet part of our regular job duties.  I started by putting in the text of the American Folklife Center’s brochure just to provide an example. Then I sat down with AFC director Alan Jabbour to explain it to him and ask if I could work on this project as part of my regular job duties. It was difficult to explain to people what the internet was, though that is hard to imagine today, and I wasn’t sure I was communicating what this tool could do as we looked at the text on the screen.  Alan asked “So, now everyone in the Library can see this?” I said, “Now everyone in the world can see this.”  Alan’s mouth fell open, “Oh, yes, I think you should work on this,” he said. As I look back on it now, it seems it was at that moment my career and the trajectory of the American Folklife Center changed. The Center desperately needed better ways to reach out to the public at that time and so became involved in the advancement of the internet at the Library of Congress in a big way. Other members of our group were having similar experiences across the Library, as what came to be called the “internet revolution” hit individual divisions. That experimental Gopher server we called LC Marvel was the first system to help users navigate the materials the Library was putting online.

Sidney Robertson Cowell copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress. W.P.A. California Folk Music Project collection, Library of Congress.

It seemed many things happened in just a few years in the 1990s. Many smart people collaborated to develop new resources and ways of doing things as the World Wide Web came to the Library. Carl Fleischhauer, a photographer at the Center who had been a fieldworker on many American Folklife Center projects, left the Center to work on digital projects at the Library. He was an important voice for archival divisions that wanted to put unpublished multimedia collections on the internet, as his experience with folklife documentation meant that he understood how important it was to present related photos, recordings, and field notes together. The best ways to do that on the early internet was not completely clear at first and took some figuring out. Folklorist Catherine Kerst came to the Center to work on the first such project, California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. That online collection became a showpiece for the presentation of multi-format ethnographic collections on the Web.

I worked on developing the Center’s website by putting publications and information online. Finding aids and other guides helped researchers and librarians, as these resources primed patrons to visit our reading room prepared with better questions. I also worked on a number of Library-wide and inter-divisional projects to further the Library’s internet presence. I taught classes in how to use the internet, first one-on-one to other staff members, then to groups of staff, and later, as the internet revolution progressed, to patrons visiting the Library. In these classes I always told folks that even as I was speaking, the internet was changing, growing, and developing so that what I said might not still be the case by the time they walked out of the room. That is still true today.

When video became something that people could access on the internet (through tiny viewers or players), I remember being asked by someone from another division if the Center could put videos of events at the Library online. At first I thought this would be difficult, as we did not expect that performers were ready to give permission for their performances to go online – it was still too new to them. But only a few years later we were doing it. Now, due to the pandemic, we do online events. I expect that online events will continue even when the Library is able to have in-person events again. In the meantime, you can find a wealth of concerts, storytelling, and folklife-related lectures at this link.

Archives are not places to store things away, but are central locations for providing access to those materials for the communities we serve. The internet is a wonderful tool for reaching many people, from audiences that want to watch a concert to researchers that want to use unpublished ethnographic materials. Not everything can go online, though, so we continue to find new ways to tell people about the collections that they can find if they visit the archive (and I hope things will be opening up more fully soon!).  So the Folklife Today blog, the podcasts, and our growing collection of online research guides are all ways of reaching out to people and telling them about what they can find. It has been a pleasure to work with John Fenn and Stephen Winick on developing these resources.

I find that as I bring my time at the Library’s American Folklife Center to a close, I want to say something to the readers of this blog that I have been saying, in one form or another, my whole career.  This is your Library and this is your American Folklife Center! When I first started working at the Library, this was often a hard message to get across since people often thought of the Library of Congress as something far removed from their own lives. But times have changed, and the internet has been a primary agent of that change. I have hope that progress and innovation will continue, and the special collections of this astonishing place will continue to become part of people’s lives.

Saint George and the Hacker: A Zoom Meeting Mummers Play

The American Folklife Center’s 2021 Mummers play is about a zoom meeting that gets invaded by a hacker who won’t let the participants leave until he gets a bitcoin ransom. 2021 has felt like a zoom meeting that wouldn’t end, so we hope our audience can relate! Find a video of the play and the complete annotated script in this blog!

Home for the Holidays? Take the New VHP Field Kit With You!

The following is a guest blog post by Owen Rogers, a Veterans History Project (VHP) liaison specialist. The Veterans History Project heard your feedback and released a new how-to Field Kit that’s more user-friendly than ever. Whether you’re virtually visiting veterans,  or spending personal time with family members who served in the military, bring the […]

Scrooge’s Prize Turkey: Victorian Christmas Foodways in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”

This post is part of an occasional series about ethnography and folklore in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  Find the whole series here! In our last look at the foodways of Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol, we examined the joy the Cratchits take in their small but serviceable Christmas goose, as Scrooge and the Ghost […]

Caught My Ear: Dance Tunes in the National Jukebox from Collections by Cecil Sharp

Many divisions of the Library of Congress have fascinating collections that are closely related to folklife and that complement collections in the American Folklife Center. The Recorded Sound Section is a part of the Library that works closely with the American Folklife Center in a variety of important ways. Among their holdings are recordings related […]

Cooking the Cratchits’ Goose: Urban Foodways in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol reveals an interesting fact about Victorian London: many working class people lacked cooking facilities, with only a hearth fire in their homes. In this post, we’ll see some of their strategies for cooking a meal by looking at the Cratchits, the only working class family depicted in the book in a detailed way. We’ll also look beyond the Cratchits to other London families in the same boat, and show how Dickens expresses social and political ideas about foodways through Scrooge and his interactions.

What Scrooge Ate on Christmas Eve: Folk Belief, Folk Medicine, and Foodways in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”

In this post, we read segments of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol ethnographically, exploring the aspects of cultural context that stand out as different, surprising, and in need of explanation. In particular, this year we’ll examine unusual aspects of Dickensian foodways. In this first post, we’ll find out how to determine what Scrooge ate on Christmas Eve, and discuss supernatural belief and folk medicine along the way.

Sharing Our Story: Carl Chamberlain’s VHP Collection

This is a guest blog post by Michael Chamberlain, whose family recently donated his father’s large WWII photograph collection to the Veterans History Project (VHP). As the executor for my father’s estate, I know how difficult it can be for families to consider handing over what is sometimes the only tangible legacy of a family […]

Beyond 21 Steps

From atop one of the most sacred places in our country, a soldier walks his 21 steps, halts, turns to face our nation’s capital and pauses for 21 seconds. As we close out this chapter of the year, I can’t help but reflect with gratitude on a recent event that the Veterans History Project (VHP) […]

Homegrown Plus: PIQSIQ Inuit-Style Throat Singing

It’s been a while since we posted a Homegrown Plus post! In this ongoing series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both videos together in an easy-to-find blog post. We’re continuing the series with PIQSIQ, an Inuit style throat singing duo who characterize their style as being “galvanized by darkness and haunting northern beauty.”

PIQSIQ is composed of sisters Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik and Kayley Inuksuk Mackay. These talented performers come together to create a unique duo, performing ancient traditional songs along with new compositions. The two grew up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, with roots in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory. After years of hard work on their music, they have developed their own form, blending haunting melodies and otherworldly sounds. As PIQSIQ, they perform their songs with live improvisational looping, creating a dynamic audience experience that changes with every show. In this blog, you’ll find their November 2020 concert and their February 2021 oral history interview.