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Work in Progress: New Story Map on the AFC’s Occupational Folklife Collections

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A group of women electricians taking a selfie at the 2017 Women's March in New York City.
Jasmine Gould with fellow electricians at the 2017 Women’s March, New York City. Photo provided for the AFC’s Occupational Folklife Collection, Illuminating History: Union Electricians in New York City. Find the archival image here.

We are excited to announce the new Library story map, Work in Progress: The American Folklife Center’s Occupational Folklife Collections, which explores the many collections in the AFC archives dedicated to documenting “occupational folklife,” or work culture, and people’s work-related histories and experiences in places across the country.

Check out the Work in Progress story map here!

The title page of the Work in Progress story map featuring iron workers on the top of a building in Chicago.
The title page of the Work in Progress story map featuring iron workers on the top of the State of Illinois Building in Chicago (probably in 1985). Photo courtesy of Henry “Bud” Martens for the AFC OFP collection, Cultural Traditions of Ironworkers of the Upper Midwest. Find archival image here.

Work in Progress brings much-needed spotlight to the Center’s Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) Collections, especially those that have been made accessible via the Library’s website over these past years. Indeed, dozens of OFP Collections have been generated by fieldworkers since 2010, when the OFP program was established, and almost thirty OFP collections – comprising some 600+ interviews – are now available online.

The majority of OFP collections are based on documentation projects supported by the annual AFC Archie Green Fellowships, named after folklorist Archie Green (1917-2009) to honor his life-long dedication to documenting “laborlore.” Through the Fellowships, fieldworkers across the nation have recorded over 1,300 oral history interviews with workers in scores of trades, industries, crafts, and professions. (Read about this year’s Archie Green Fellows here.)

The OFP program was inspired by the Work Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writers Project. During the Great Depression, researchers fanned out across the country to record interviews for the “American Life Histories” project. The resultant archival collection, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, includes documentation of people’s jobs and work experiences.

Electrician Kim Spicer on a ladder at work in a building in New York City
Kim Spicer at work in the Mondrian Hotel, Manhattan, New York, 2017. On the photo, she states: “I was in the middle of a wire pull. There was a little break in between pulls so I asked for my photo to be taken, especially since this is improper ladder usage which I’ve been repeatedly told through out my career as an electrician.” Photo provided for the OFP Illuminating History collection. Find the archival image here.

As noted, the Work in Progress story map focuses on a number of online OFP Collections, and the remarkable people – via interviews and photographs – who are documented in them. Scrolling through, one can listen to workers discuss their jobs and reflect on formative work experiences, as well as their training, challenges they faced, and the occupational communities to which they belong. In many cases, they discuss the choices and educational paths that led them to their present jobs, and share their thoughts on the future of their professions.

One example is Kim Spicer, an electrician, journey wire-woman, and proud member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local #3 in Queens, New York. Spicer was interviewed for the 2016 Archie Green Fellowship-supported project, Illuminating History: Union Electricians in New York City, led by New York-based researcher and electrician Jaime Lopez, who documented the culture of over twenty IBEW Local #3 electricians.

In her interview, Spicer talks about how she tried other, less-fulfilling jobs before apprenticing to become an electrician. She also discusses her training, the tasks and skills involved in her work, and the challenges of being a woman in a traditionally male trade. She states: “For some reason, ever since I was a first-year apprentice, they like putting me on the ‘bull gang,’ which is the people that pull the wire or set up these big wire pulls — like 600s, like big! But I got it done. So I guess they saw that I had some sort of strength and they kept putting me on it.”

Spicer’s interview is also featured on the AFC’s America Works podcast, which features OFP interviews in its dozens of episodes since 2020, and that the story map draws on throughout its journey into the occupational folklife collections.

Other spotlighted collections in Work in Progress include: Women Architects (from across the U.S.);  Trash Talk: Workers in Vermont’s Waste Management Industry; and materials that predate the OFP program, such as Zora Neale Hurston’s late-1930s work for the Federal Writers Project in Florida and the 1994 Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting collection. So, click on over to Work in Progress to explore these rich collections, and stay tuned for more AFC story maps later this year!

This post was co-written with Nancy Groce, AFC Senior Folklife Specialist.

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