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New fellowship program at the AFC supports cultural documentation by communities

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This post initially appeared on a new blog at the Library of Congress that launched on January 27, 2021 in support of the initiative discussed below. Be sure to subscribe to this new blog for updates and information about the “Of the People” initiative.We’ll also be posting updates to Folklife Today, as well.

The American Folklife Center is excited to be involved with “Of the People: Widening the Path,” an initiative at the Library of Congress funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. A general overview announcing the initiative is here, and in this post we’ll provide background and details about the Community Collections Fellowship program that the American Folklife Center will oversee. A full call for proposals will be available in the coming month, so be sure to watch this blog and other Library media channels for that announcement. This fellowship program is an exciting opportunity for people from across the United States to document their own cultural expressions and traditions, with both technical and financial support from the Library of Congress!

A dozen school children in a loose circle play hand games in a room. A microphone stand and two microphones are visible in the corner.
Session of Hand Games organized by folklorist, Beverly Robinson, for the South-Georgie Folklife Project. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1977. American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. AFC 1982/010: 1-17506.

What’s the culture in your community? What are important events or celebrations? Where (and why) do people gather, or how do they use shared spaces? How do people in the community express themselves through music, dress, language, food, or any number of other creative ways?

Community Collections fellows will be able to address such questions by exploring the culture in their backyards (or front yards!) through interviews, photographs, or audio-visual recordings of the experiences and expressions in their daily surroundings. Funding from the Mellon Foundation allows the American Folklife Center to support its mission of preserving and presenting folklife in all its diversity, while inviting communities to represent themselves and their cultural heritage.

How will we do this? The main component for AFC will be the Community Collection Fellowship program, a three-year project that will fund up to 10 fellowships each year. The fellowships will be awarded through a competitive application process, and eligibility extends to individuals, groups, and small nonprofit organizations. Each fellowship will carry an award of up to $50,000 to support travel expenses, purchase (or rental) of equipment, stipends for those doing the documentation, or other expenses connected to fieldwork. Fellows also will have access to training offered by AFC staff in cultural documentation methods, preparation of files for digital preservation, and use of the Library’s digital ingest system. Staff will be available to provide technical advice, and will work with each year’s set of fellows to create a cohort for sharing knowledge and lessons learned. Funding has been set aside for fellows to develop public programs in their home communities connected to their projects, and in the fourth year of the initiative we intend to bring representatives from each cohort of fellows to Washington D.C. for a public event celebrating the work that has been accomplished.

Funds from the Mellon Foundation will support other essential activity within the Library over the next four years, including hiring of staff dedicated to processing and cataloging collections generated by the fellows. Additionally, funding will enhance the Library’s ability to accept born-digital collection items through a public-facing portal and then make these items accessible online.

A group of young boys with skateboards poses in front of a brick wall in a parking lot.
Skateboarders in Merrimack St. parking lot, posing for fieldworkers during the Lowell Folklife Project. Photograph by Douglas DeNatale,1987. American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. AFC 1987/042: LFP-DD-C015.

Since shortly after its inception in 1976 through the American Folklife Preservation Act (Public Law 94-201), the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has operated as steward for a significant ethnographic archive. Now numbering about 6.5 million items and comprising just over 3400 distinct collections, the AFC archive contains documentation of diverse cultural communities and traditions spanning the late 1800s on through today. Beyond caring for these collections, the AFC has also actively built the collections by conducting large scale folklife survey projects between 1977 and 1998 around the country, training people in cultural documentation methods, and offering financial support through the Archie Green Fellowship program to build the Occupational Folklife Project. The Mellon Foundation funding enables us to build on these efforts through direct work with cultural communities, and the staff at the AFC looks forward to being a part of this historic initiative!

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