This post, which is the first in a two-part series, is co-authored with folklorist Robert Baron, co-organizer of the Community-driven Archives event, and moderator of the first roundtable discussion.
In September, the American Folklife Center, with support from the American Folklore Society and the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF), hosted the discussion event, Community-driven Archives: Local Needs/Global Practices in Safeguarding Living Cultural Heritage, attended by folklorists, ethnomusicologists, archivists, archives and heritage scholars, and ethnologists from North America, Asia, and Europe. It provided a unique opportunity for cultural specialists from multiple disciplines to present their work and discuss key issues at a time when archives have become far more accessible to, and driven by, the source communities whose cultural legacies they safeguard.
The event is now available for viewing below, and on the Library of Congress YouTube channel here.
Over the course of two roundtable discussions, participants approached topics of community-led documentation, related ethical issues, and new directions in archival access made possible through digitization, repatriation, preservation, and broad-based training in archival practices. Presentations and discussions represented multiple perspectives, encompassing archival theory, contemporary practices in documentation and archival management, and community cultural self-determination. A main strength was its international scope, with participants joining in from Africa, Asia and Europe as well as the Americas. Panelists from across multiple time zones shared examples of community-based archives and work, and related documentation projects, in the contexts of India, Kenya, Peru, Brazil, Ireland, the U.K., and U.S. You can read about the event and each panelist’s biography and presentation abstract here. In the following, we attempt to summarize the fruitful discussions of the first roundtable, highlighting important ideas and issues that surfaced, and links to relevant resources mentioned. At the end, we also include a selected bibliography for further reading on this topic. And stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which focuses on the second roundtable.
The event began with a stage-setting welcome from the Center’s Director, Nicole Saylor, and staff, providing an overview of the AFC, as institutional host, and its longstanding prioritization of bolstering diverse people’s representation within the AFC archives and array of programming. For over four decades staff have collaborated with source and descendant community members represented in AFC collections on issues related to repatriation, reclamation, and access, among other areas of activity. The Center has long emphasized the cycle of documentation and archiving as interconnected processes intrinsic to folklife projects. Beginning a year after the AFC’s establishment in 1976 was the Federal Cylinder Project, whose goals were: “to gather together thousands of such historical recordings held at the Library of Congress, in national and international repositories, at universities, and in private collections; produce catalog records; preserve the audio on reel-to-reel tape; and make the recordings available to communities of origin,” including training source community members in archival and documentation practice, as outlined here. This repatriation process has stimulated recovery of traditions and their revitalization as they once again become part of current repertoires. In this digital age, repatriation involves new methods for labelling cultural items, such as recordings, alerting researchers and the public to community-sanctioned uses of their cultural materials, exemplified by the Center’s Ancestral Voices Project. Further developing this decades-long work is the AFC’s newest grant program, the Community Collections Grants (CCG), as part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, supported by the Mellon Foundation. As briefly presented, the CCG program funds one-year, community-led cultural documentation projects across the U.S. and territories, with project team documentation and metadata becoming part of the AFC archives as online collections. You can learn more about the CCG program here, and read about awardee projects on the Of the People blog.
As reflected by the CCG program, putting principles of equity and ethics to work in cultural documentation and archival endeavors was a key focal point of the Community-driven Archives roundtables. Specifically, the notion of community self-representation in – and control over – ethnographic research, documentation, and archival preservation processes, was a strong thematic thread woven throughout the day’s discussions – teased out from global, local, institutional, and community-based points of view. Indeed, the event was planned with such aims in mind: to foster examination and knowledge exchange on the roles ethnographic archives and related documentation practices can play – and have already been playing – in supporting communities’ cultural livelihoods through the sharing of examples of where culture keepers, artists, communities, and social groups are leading the way. Moreover, we sought to advantageously respond to global developments in this area: namely, the fast-growing initiatives, programs, and projects across the world geared toward safeguarding people’s living cultural traditions, practices, and expressions, as mobilized through the popular UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. With 182 countries signed on to the Convention, it has ignited a boom in cultural surveys, documentation, and ‘inventorying’ activity, but questions of community involvement in such processes remain, as do questions on preservation and access with respect to resultant information and materials. With archives barely mentioned in the 2003 Convention guidelines, panelists lamented the lack of encouragement and direction for the safeguarding of living cultural heritage in archives and other repositories, especially in light of the vast amount of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) documented through UNESCO-associated projects for the benefit of current and future generations.
Discussions were framed with the following, open-ended questions: What roles can archives play in uplifting and safeguarding people’s cultural knowledge, living traditions and expressions? And in what ways can cultural documentation, through archival preservation and access processes, be community led? The expertise, experiences, and insights offered by panelists serve to expand global heritage discourses to include archives and related efforts as equally-significant approaches to the safeguarding of people’s living cultural heritages, but with the crucial emphasis on supporting community-led initiatives so as to meet their needs, in their words and on their terms.
So, onto the first roundtable and our distinguished guests! Folklorist Robert Baron opened the first roundtable, Documenting living traditions and the changing roles of archives: a global view, which brought together panelists: Shubha Chaudhuri, Associate Director General (Academic), Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology, American Institute of Indian Studies; Anthony Seeger, Professor Emeritus UCLA and Curator Emeritus Smithsonian Institution; Maryna Chernyavska, Digital Archivist, University of Alberta Archives, Libraries and Museums; and Andy Kolovos, Associate Director and Archivist, Vermont Folklife.
In letting in some ‘fresh air,’ Baron framed discussions with a focus on promising developments in the field, offering a global overview of a growing movement among ethnographic archival institutions and organizations in becoming “culturally generative institutions that proactively engage with communities acting in response to their interests, moving from a role that was more a venue for scholars and specialist researchers” and to “archives act[ing] as activist institutions to revitalize traditions, to be agents of cultural exploration and revitalization.” He spoke of the revolutionary impact of digitization and interactive, online archives, which include exhibits of materials, access on mobile devices, and crowdsourced interpretation of collections that enable users to transcribe and correct transcripts and to upload new materials. These platforms contribute to reciprocal and dialogical relationships involving the sharing of authority among archivists, scholars, and communities. These more equitable relationships have included changes to metadata, which incorporate the cultural categories used in source communities. He also noted the multiple dimensions of contemporary repatriation associated activities, which may include ceremonies and performances accompanying the return of documentation, interpretive publications and the production of videos. Repatriation reinforces and reclaims traditions, reawakening cultural memories. It results in the renewed practice of these traditions, and may also involve their incorporation in contemporary performances.
In their presentation, Communities and Archives: Trust, Flexibility, and Collaboration, Shubha Chaudhuri and Anthony Seeger further connect the global and local, contrasting international cultural policy with community-based archival efforts in a number of places. In turning to the UNESCO 2003 Convention, they rightly spotlight questions of community involvement in its implementation, as well as its lack of attention to the importance of community-based archival preservation, with respect to the immense documentation of people’s living traditions that it has spurred across the world. Through certain examples, such as the Archives and Community Partnership Project of the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology (ARCE) in New Delhi, India and Kĩsêdjê community archiving in Mato Grasso, Brazil, they make clear that not only are community documentation and archiving efforts already underway, but that they are facilitated via diverse configurations and approaches, often boosted by digital technologies, and each presenting distinctive sets of challenges. ARCE is exemplary in conjoining training in field research and archival practices at the community level, and includes many recordings made by foreign scholars repatriated to ARCE. Seeger spoke of the variety of archives and the ways they engage communities, “sometimes entire communities are engaged in creating an archive. Sometimes it is a small group within a community or from outside the community, and sometimes it is an individual assembling a collection.” Emphasizing that such efforts are not uniform (nor is the concept of ‘community’ so easily bound), obstacles exist that affect the development and sustainability of community archives, for which more established and/or larger research archives can be – and are – called on to lend support, such as providing financial, logistical, and technological resources.
Tying back to the global level, Chaudhuri and Seeger offer key recommendations that address the need for greater community involvement in heritage safeguarding processes, such as the employment of ethical guidelines for researchers and professionals at research archives, but also those working with communities on such efforts. Here, Chaudhuri cautions that communities are internally differentiated and vary in their interest in safeguarding documentation. She notes: “In my years as an archivist, there have been many positive interactions and outcomes of working with communities, but there have been occasions when members of a community were not interested in having access to their documents or recordings, have no use for them and sometimes are merely tolerating what they see as our well-meaning efforts.” In concluding, she adds: “it’s perhaps useful to remember that just as the nature of ICH is constantly changing, communities also are not static and monolithic and will constantly change. So will the roles of all kinds of archives. Technology and changing attitudes will propel us in new directions at a hitherto unexpected pace.”
On the need for ethical guidelines, Maryna Chernyavska, in her presentation, Folklife Archives in the Archival Multiverse, examines existing ethics frameworks, and hones in on what putting them into practice can look like through current projects in Scotland and Ireland. Serving also as Co-Chair of the Working Group on Archives of SIEF, Chernyavska shares the model 2019 SIEF Statement on Data Management in Ethnology and Folklore, which integrates ethical considerations with ethnographic research, documentation, archiving, and interpretation/dissemination activities, including the need to facilitate and sustain consent processes on an ongoing basis. In the context of archives, the Statement encourages that any “such consent should be considered a ‘living document,’ open to revision by the contributor at any time,” as stressed by Chernyavska, and discussed further during the roundtable’s Q&A period. The Statement also emphasizes the particularly challenging issues brought about by digitization with regard to the protection of cultural property, dissemination, and access. To learn more about the Working Group activities, you can watch the SIEF Working Group on Archives informational YouTube videos here.
Importantly, she argues that folklife archives are well-situated and equipped to ethically and equitably support community documentation and archives initiatives, thanks in part to their longstanding attention to marginalized communities, unofficial, informal, non-mainstream histories and heritages, as well as continued efforts in ensuring their representation in the historical and cultural record. Chernyavska notes: “Folklife archives have deep understanding and long-term experience documenting and sharing traditions […] They take into account collective ownership; ethical implications of disseminating folklore materials in a digital world; how to ensure that the context is preserved. They advocate for unofficial, non-elite, sometimes marginal culture and its role and place in what should be known about human experiences generally and what will be known tomorrow as history.”
Grounding these ideas, she details dynamic community archiving collaborations facilitated by colleagues at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen and via the Cork Folklore Project, University College Cork, and their insights on the ethical practices that have built them, step-by-step. She shares projects that focus on documenting the living traditions and memory culture with and for marginalized and underrepresented communities, including immigrants, minority ethnic groups, and LGBTQ+ communities. Fieldworkers in the Cork Project include community researchers who help document working life, leisure, social change, health, and everyday life. She ends with, perhaps, one of the most significant ‘ingredients’ for thoughtful, intensive, and community-engaged archival work: time. Bridging key ideas from the Cork Folklore Project initiative and the notion of ‘slow archives,’ as advanced by scholars Kim Christen and Jane Anderson, Chernyavska stresses the need for actively slowing down collaborative processes, and creating the time required for truly listening to community partners and learning from them their ideas and needs in moving forward together. She reminds us that “the principles of slow archives are accountability, engagement, relationality and reciprocity.” Such an approach emphasizes respectful relationships, “listening carefully and acting ethically,” as stated by Christen and Anderson. And for folklife archives, this is how diverse perspectives can be taken into account “on what is important to the community to be remembered and preserved and what is important to be forgotten.”
Rounding out presentations, and delving further into institutional perspectives on community partnerships, is Andy Kolovos and his presentation, Public Folklore, Collaborative Documentation and Ethnographic Archives. Kolovos brings discussions to the decades-long archives, public programming, and community engagement initiatives of Vermont Folklife (VTF), beginning with an overview of the cross-disciplinary archives theory and practice that has shaped the Center’s community-driven multi-format, ethnographic collections and collaborative work. On how the VTF is community-driven – from its archives and programming, to educational opportunities – he sums up its mission: “To present people to the world as they see themselves. To represent human experience from the perspective of people, of the people who lived it.” In particular, he provides useful insights into the ethical responsibilities and practices of Center staff in stewarding and disseminating collections with permissions from those represented therein, as well as legal practice with respect to copyright protections and associated access and use conditions.
Significantly, he also reminds us of the power of ethnographic archives in bolstering the revitalization of living cultural traditions, such as through the VTF’s project, Revitalizing Franco-American Song in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, an “an effort to bring Franco-American song materials in our collections out into the world in partnership with Franco-American community members and performers.” While part of a larger initiative to enhance engagement with the VTF’s rich Franco-American archival materials, launched in 2018, Kolovos focuses on how they collaborated with a number of musicians to “develop a repertoire of songs that they would then teach over six weekly, free singing schools” and, essentially, “take what once were lyrics on a page in an archive in Middlebury, Vermont and work with culture bearers to frame and execute an effort to revive and revitalize them as music.” You can read more about the musicians and the Vermont Franco-American Songbook that was developed through the collaboration here.
We thank, again, the distinguished panelists for their excellent contributions to the Community-driven Archives discussions, and all who made it such a successful event. Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series, which presents a summary of the equally-fruitful, second roundtable, Community-driven Archives in Action: Approaches and Impacts, which like this post, serves as a resource for following along with the recording above, or on the Library of Congress YouTube channel here.
Association of Cultural Equity’s repatriation efforts.
Gunderson, Frank, Lancefield, R. C. and Woods, B. eds. 2018. The Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation. Oxford University Press.
Gray, Judith. 1996. Returning Music to the Makers: The Library of Congress, American Indians, and the Federal Cylinder Project. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 20 (4).
Shankar, Guha. 2010. From Subject to Producer: Reframing the Indigenous Heritage through Cultural Documentation Training. International Journal of Intangible Heritage, vol. 5.
Seeger, Anthony. 2001. Intellectual Property and Audiovisual Archives and Collections. In Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, pp. 32–47.
Seeger, Anthony, and Shubha Chaudhuri. 2015. The Contributions of Reconfigured Audiovisual Archives to Sustaining Traditions. World of Music, 4 (1): 21–34.
Stefano, Michelle L. and John Fenn. 2022. Advancing Representation in Ethnographic Archives: Examples from the American Folklife Center. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 28 (11-12): 1197-1212.