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The American Folklife Center: 2022 in Review

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Three people stand in a small group, with one of them holding up an object for others to see.
Betsy Peterson and her family at her retirement celebration, April 2022. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

As 2022 draws to a close, we at the American Folklife Center want to take time to reflect on a year devoted to deepening our commitment to community-centered stewardship, adapting to hybrid work and planning for the future. The year was marked by the Library’s return to full onsite operations, leadership transitions, and moves to new public and staff spaces that make way for the transformation of the Jefferson Building. The year brought waves of change and staff rose to the challenge.

The AFC staff enthusiastically worked with the inaugural cohort of Community Collections grantees, hosted live onsite events again for the first time since before the pandemic, achieved an eightfold reduction in the gross collections processing arrearage, and safely connected people with collections in the newly opened reading room while fielding a 300 percent increase in remote reference interactions. There is much to celebrate even as we continue to find our way in a world that doesn’t look much like the one we had prior to COVID.

Not only does the way we work look different, so does AFC’s leadership team. Former director Betsy Peterson retired in May 2022, leaving behind a growing Center engaged in meaningful partnerships and programs. We are grateful for the ways in which she championed online access, guided the acquisition of impactful new collections and prioritized working with the communities documented in AFC collections. In late May, I became the Center’s fourth director. Other significant leadership changes occurred in the spring as well. Monica Mohindra assumed the role of Director of the Veterans History Project (VHP), Michael Pahn became the Center’s Archives Director and Travis Bickford was named the Head of VHP’s Program Coordination and Communications section. In the fall, John Fenn, AFC’s Head of Research and Programs, added leadership of the reference staff to his portfolio, which also includes steering AFC’s Mellon-funded Community Collections Grant initiative.

We continued to build our collections through programmatic activities such as the Archie Green Fellowships, which fund community-based oral history interviews with workers across the United States who discuss workplace experiences and occupational communities. We also acquired important collections from documentarian Candacy Taylor, whose “Counter Culture” and “By the Horns” portfolios present the working lives of women bullfighters and waitresses across America, and Reginald Jackson, who documented the transmission of traditional culture throughout the African diaspora. Both acquisitions strengthen AFC’s strategic collecting areas of civil rights documentation, visual documentation, occupational folklife and documentation of women’s traditions. Other acquisitions ranged from folklorist Margarita Mazo’s documentation of the Molokan and Old Believer diaspora in the United States to organizations such as the Nevada Arts Council’s Folklife Archives.

Here is a brief look at our work this year, distilled into three overarching themes:

Deepening our commitment to community-centered collecting

Modesta Yangmog of Asor Island, Ulithi Atoll interviewing master lavalava weaver Conchita Leyangrow of Lamotrek Atoll in Talguw on Yap Island
Modesta Yangmog of Asor Island, Ulithi Atoll interviewing master lavalava weaver Conchita Leyangrow of Lamotrek Atoll in Talguw on Yap Island for the Community Collections Grants project. They are using a warp board as their interview “table.” Photo courtesy of Habele.

In varying degrees throughout the last 50 years, the Library has worked to establish collaborative and sustained relationships with the communities documented in its collections. Perhaps the most well-known efforts were undertaken by AFC, which curates a large body of songs and stories recorded on wax cylinders. The ethnographic nature of the materials make collaboration an ethical imperative.

In 2022, AFC participated in the Native American Collections Working Group, established earlier this year to implement actions approved by senior Library of Congress leaders to establish policies and protocols for the management of Native American materials, particularly those deemed to be culturally sensitive. The group’s goals include creating policies and public-facing documentation, defining and managing culturally sensitive materials, responsibly expanding collections access, developing and sustaining relationships with tribal communities, and creating a community of practice within the Library and across Federal agencies. Staff also participated in efforts to unify the Library approach to inclusive description practices.

We continue to find ways to put these efforts into practice. AFC is an active participant in the Mukurtu Shared initiative to develop a platform enabling collaborative curation with Native American communities of their collection materials held at federal archives such as ours. AFC staff worked closely with staff at Washington State University (WSU) to help test the Mukurtu Metadata Transformation Tool (MMTT). This tool facilitates the “round trip” of descriptive metadata, which the Library shares with Indigenous cultural institutional partners. Community members and cultural authorities then correct and update this metadata, and finally will send this updated metadata back to the Library using the MMTT. AFC, along with other Special Collections divisions, worked with WSU to continue development and testing of the MMTT in anticipation of receiving metadata from community partners in 2023.

AFC has put substantial focus on community-centered curation through its administration of the Community Collections Grants (CCG). In March 2022, the Library made 10 awards for the first round of the CCG program managed by the AFC. Awardees receive up to $50,000 to conduct 12-month cultural documentation projects foregrounding the community perspective. Project locations span the United States and support self-representation of BIPOC communities in the national collection. Artist and founder of Urban Artistry Junious Brickhouse, a recipient of the 2022 Community Collections Grants program, put the goals of the initiative best when he said, “You see, I can’t think of one person who doesn’t have a story to tell. As much as I love being a folklorist, I also want people to be able to tell their stories on their own terms, in ways that are agreeable to them.”

We recognize the ways in which the complicated history of collecting still influences library practices, and we continue to strive to be culturally responsive when making decisions about acquiring, describing, and providing access to tribal collections. As a public institution we want to continue to allow onsite and online access to community collections and also establish policies and protocols that respect community wishes when making public access decisions.

Living the hybrid worklife

Frances McDormand, Davia, and Nikki Silva sit on chairs on a stage. They are laughing heartily.
Frances McDormand laughs with The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva) during the rehearsal for their presentation on September 15, 2022. Photo by Stephen Winick.

While the Library is back to full onsite operations, it is piloting a telework policy that allows staff with appropriate work to spend a portion of their time working from home. AFC staff have been a part of this effort while also continuing to balance the demands of onsite events, reference and physical collections processing. This new way of working was at once disruptive to our familiar ways of interacting with one another and strained our sense of team cohesion. On the flip side, it has forced us to find creative new ways to communicate and foster collegiality using existing online tools that enable video conferencing and chat.

Staff have made the most of telework by focusing on descriptive access and digital collection projects. In AFC, staff produced a range of digital collections (13, with a focus on our Occupational Folklife Project), finding aids (6 new and 7 enhanced) and publications such as podcasts (15 episodes across the Folklife Today and America Works series), blog posts (91 posts and counting, shared with our more than 25,000 subscribers) and research guides (32 focused on international collections and AFC collecting “areas of distinction”) that support access.

We continued to lean into developing online programs that the Center started in earnest during the early days of the pandemic. In 2022, we engaged remote audiences with a third season of the Homegrown at Home virtual concert series and a second season of the Homegrown Foodways series of documentary videos.

Through dedicated work using the Story Map platform, AFC provided curated access to large online collections, including contributing to two focused on cultural heritage months recognized by the federal government. Others included Work in Progress, which geo-located the collections from the Occupational Folklife Project. Two summer interns, Elisa Alfonso and Bryan Jenkins, helped support the StoryMap and podcast work. Meanwhile, VHP explored envelope art in its collection by creating a StoryMap focused on the Art of Correspondence.

This fall we marked the return to onsite events. We staffed pop-up displays and hosted significant public events such as the Sept. 15 onstage conversation between the Kitchen Sisters and Frances McDormand and the Nov. 10 performance of Modern Warrior Live to kick off Veterans Day weekend. A Reading Room open house on Aug. 11 drew more than 160 visitors.  AFC even brought our holiday mummers’ play back to the Great Hall after two virtual years, one as a podcast audio drama and the other as a Zoom-based performance.

Preparing for the future

woman carrying cardboard box in AFC reading room
Reference librarian Allina Migoni helps relocate materials from the American Folklife Center Reading Room in early 2022.

The relocation of the AFC reading room and staff spaces was to make way for a learning center that will offer families, teens and school groups a chance to engage Library collections through innovative interactive experiences. This shift is part of a larger effort to realize the Visitors Experience Master Plan (VEMP), a public-private partnership to share the art and architecture of one of Washington’s most grand places with the many, not the few. The project’s ethos to democratize access to the Library aligns nicely with the founding principles of AFC. We are excited to be a part of it all. In fact, we spent 2022 working with the VEMP team to select recordings and other items from our collections to highlight in the Treasures Gallery and other spaces. We’ve also assumed a smaller footprint on the ground floor of the Jefferson Building. It enables us to serve collections onsite while reflecting the growing nature of our reference and collection access work, which is increasingly happening online.

We continued to plan for the day when degradation of physical audiovisual media and obsolesce of playback equipment severely limit our ability to preserve analog AV collections. After a significant audio reformatting project in 2022 that yielded 18,173 analog items preserved and 28,014 digital preservation files, more than 70 percent of AFC’s analog audiovisual material is now digitally preserved and accessible. Also, thanks to a Ford Foundation grant we are preparing for a digitization pilot of the AIDS Memorial Quilt collection.

VHP made an important step toward modernizing access to its collections and services. During the week of Veterans Day (Nov. 7-11, 2022), a new VHP website launched that features a contemporary look and feel that visually and functionally aligns with the rest of and features a robust “Serving: Our Voices” feature (previously “Experiencing War”) that provides easy access to thematic curated content. They are also working with Library technologists to modernize the donor submission process.

Finally, all of the changes brought about in 2022 have inspired us to plan for the future. AFC turns 50 in 2026 and its archives, relocated from the Music Division after the founding of the Center, turns 100 in 2028. VHP will celebrate 25 years in 2025. These significant milestones provide us with an opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished and work toward our ideal future. Toward this end, in September the AFC Board of Trustees and staff embarked on a planning process to identify factors impacting AFC’s future and priorities for the next three years. We have recently announced three new members of the Board of Trustees who will be part of this process. We will share more details in 2023 as this work unfolds.

As we head into a new year, we are grateful for the support of our Board of Trustees and all of the external partners and Library collaborators who make success possible. I am grateful for our entire staff, who have demonstrated such a high degree of ambiguity tolerance and good cheer in the face of so much transition.

Farewell 2022!

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