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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.

12 Comments

  1. Angela
    December 30, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you for all your dedication. Have a great retirement!

  2. Judith Cohen
    December 30, 2021 at 3:16 pm

    Thanks Stephanie! It was absolutely wonderful in so many ways to have you there those months I was a Fellow ! Looking forward to seeing you next time I get back to DC:

  3. Judy
    December 30, 2021 at 4:09 pm

    Best Wishes for all the adventures that have been waiting for you to retire to enjoy them.

  4. Abby Sale
    December 30, 2021 at 4:48 pm

    You mean you won’t be there to help me any more? Awful! I’ve counted on you 25 years or so.
    Oh well, there are some other fine experts also.

    Have a fine retirement. Don’t forget to sing. Maybe I’ll see you in a Zoom.

  5. SharonM.
    December 30, 2021 at 5:14 pm

    I think people forget just how recently all this happened. You have made a great career out of making the hidden seen! Thanks so much for all of your posts. You will be missed!

  6. Elizabeth Peterson
    December 30, 2021 at 5:28 pm

    Thank you Stephanie for this wonderful reminiscence of your great work for AFC. You were certainly the right person in the right place at a very auspicious time for AFC. We will try our best to honor your reminder to us all to make these incredible collections available to all. But please know it is your AFC too!…and I hope you will visit us often. It has been a pleasure and honor work with you and we wish you all of the very best in all of the adventures ahead.

    Betsy

  7. Jurretta Heckscher
    December 30, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    Congratulations on a remarkable career, Stephanie, and best wishes for a long and happy retirement!

  8. Nancy Groce
    December 30, 2021 at 7:21 pm

    What a lovely essay. Thanks, Stephanie. We will miss having you here at the Library.

  9. Lentigogirl
    December 30, 2021 at 10:12 pm

    You have been a treasure and will be much missed. Thanks for sharing your extraordinary story;

  10. Joanna
    January 3, 2022 at 8:34 am

    Congratulations on your retirement! Thank you for sharing this snapshot of Library history! Absolutely brilliant.

  11. Danna Bell
    January 3, 2022 at 11:59 am

    I knew some of the story but appreciate learning so much more of it. You and the pioneers who moved the Library onto the internet were fearless and amazing. Thank you for your hard work.

    Also thank you for your support of teachers and letting us know of blog posts that you thought would be of interest to teachers.

    You will be missed but I look forward to see what you do during the next chapters of your life.

  12. Emilia De Simoni
    January 3, 2022 at 2:10 pm

    Grazie per il tuo meraviglioso lavoro e per il tuo generoso impegno!

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