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Lumbee/Tuscarora singer Charly Lowry performing at Library of Congress
Charly Lowry (Lumbee/Tuscarora) performing at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on November 9, 2023 as part of the Homegrown Concert Series and in celebration of Native American Heritage Month. Photo by AFC Folklife Specialist Douglas D. Peach.

The American Folklife Center: 2023 in Review

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As a new year begins, we at the American Folklife Center want to take a moment to look back on 2023. We spent the year fulfilling our mission as the Congressionally designated center for folklife documentation and research, which involves stewarding a large ethnographic archives, creating robust public programs, and exchanging knowledge and expertise. We were busy supporting several contemporary documentation projects, engaging the public in a wide range of in-person and online activities, and improving how we serve those interested in our collections. We also welcomed new colleagues and Board members. Here are some highlights from the year:

Contemporary documentation

A new public collecting project was added to AFC’s roster: the Congressionally mandated COVID-19 American History Project. The Center published an online research guide to collections and other resources documenting responses to the pandemic, awarded multiple contracts to support oral history interviews with frontline workers who were impacted, and launched an initiative with StoryCorps inviting the public to record and submit conversations about their pandemic experiences.

Man being interviewed about his experiences with COVID-19 pandemic
Contracted Fieldworker Anita Grant, of Gran Enterprises LLC, interviewing Shawn’te Harvell (LE/LFD, CFSP) in Atlanta, Georgia in October 2023 about his COVID-19 experiences as manager of the Smith Funeral Home in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

AFC also awarded a second round of 10 Community Collection Grant (CCG) awards. Each award provides up to $50,000 to community members for year-long cultural documentation projects foregrounding community perspectives from New York, Washington, California, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, among others. This award program is part of the Library’s Mellon-funded initiative, Of the People: Widening the Path,” and supports self-representation for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communi­ties in the national collection.

Two women speaking about research project
Dr. Lola Quan Bautista (left), Associate Professor of Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, speaking with Teresita Concepcion Flores (left), for the project Celebrating CHamoru Nobenas–a 2023 recipient of the Community Collections Grant. Photo by Burt Sardoma.

Four new Archie Green Fellows were selected to contribute to the Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) by documenting the diverse experience of work in America. On the access side, 10 OFP collections, totaling 2160 digital items, were made accessible online.

We were thrilled to acquire Martha Cooper’s archive of original photography, centering on the birth and proliferation of graffiti, breakdance, and hip hop from the heart of the movement in New York, 1979 to the present. Her work also documents vernacular architecture, traditional tattooing, indigenous coming-of-age ceremonies, 9/11 memorials and public mourning, among many other topics. You can hear more about her life’s work in this webcast from her 2022 lecture at the Library. Overall, AFC acquired seven new collections and 28 accruals to major collections, including the Kitchen Sisters and Reginald Jackson, who documented the transmission of traditional culture throughout the African diaspora.

American Folklife Center staff member and Martha Cooper preparing collection materials for transport
Jesse Hocking, AFC Acquisitions Coordinator (left), and Martha Cooper (right), preparing to transport the first of four shipments of Cooper’s collection to the American Folklife Center on November 12, 2023. Photo by Jesse Hocking. 

Meanwhile, archives staff reduced the backlog of unprocessed collections by 215,115 items, exceeding its target of 155,000 items. They completed processing and prepared more than 125,000 items from the AIDS Memorial Quilt records for digitization, including all items donated by quilt panel makers to the NAMES Project in memory of more than 110,000 individuals memorialized on approximately 50,000 quilt panels. The Library of Congress received generous funding from the Ford Foundation for digitization of the AIDS Memorial Quilt panel maker records, which is currently underway. Archives staff continued to prioritize digital preservation of analog audiovisual collections, working with a vendor to clean and digitize approximately 1,200 audiotapes. Now more than 70 percent of AFC’s analog audiovisual materials have been digitally preserved.

New faces

At the fall Board meeting in September, Heather Hodges, Director of Institutional Advancement at the Historic New Orleans Collection, was named Chair of the AFC Board of Trustees. Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota), Executive Director of the First Peoples Fund, was named Vice Chair. New leadership came amid a wave of recent appointments to American Folklife Center Board of Trustees. Three new presidential appointees were announced in the summer: Sara C. Bronin, Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; Admiral Rachel Leland Levine, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services; and Charles Sams III, Director of the National Park Service. In the fall, Heather Obernolte, volunteer and community activist, was appointed by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-CA20, to the Board. These new members joined the Board on the heels of three new members announced in late 2022: composer and recording artist Natalie Merchant, (appointed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York) and Librarian appointees: Martha González, musician and Macarthur Fellow, and Ricardo L. Punzalan, Associate Professor of Information, University of Michigan.

Board Members of the American Folklife Center
AFC Board Members visiting the Library of Congress Digitization Lab during the Fall 2023 Board of Trustees Meeting. (l to r) Dr. Ricardo (Ricky) Punzalan, John Rice, Heather Obernolte, and Anne Arrington. Photo by Douglas D. Peach.

In July, Ann Hoog became AFC’s Head of Collections Processing, a new position aimed at providing more focused attention to arrearage reduction and stewardship of analog collections. AFC also hired two new Folklife Specialists: Douglas D. Peach, who started in April, and Meg Nicholas, who started in early June. Peach is an ethnomusicologist and public folklorist, who has most recently served as the Director of Folklife and Community Engagement at Sandy Spring Museum, leading the Regional Folklife Center for Montgomery County, MD, between 2020-2023. Nicholas is a folklorist and storyteller of mixed Lenape and Welsh heritage whose professional work has encompassed family folklore, personal narrative, contemporary ghost lore and urban legends and the material culture of American Indian artists and communities.

Staff member at American Folklife Center showing collections items to visitors from British Library
Meg Nicholas, AFC’s newest Folklife Specialist, contextualizing AFC collection items for Imogen Hobson (far right), Major Gifts and Philanthropy Manager, and Marcie Hopkins (middle), Director of International, at the British Library on October 24, 2023. Photo by Tien Doan.

AFC hosted Librarian in Residence Andrea Decker, who took on a project to improve how AFC assesses, documents, and communicates about the rights status of archival collections, and two summer interns: Joe Zavaan Johnson and Deena R. Owens. More information about each of these dynamic individuals can be found on the Folklife Today blog.

Public engagement

Staff hosted 26 events and presentations that increased access to and shared expertise about AFC collections, as well as six workshops focused on use of AFC collections, including a collaboration with the Kluge Center and Teaching with Primary Sources divisions that involved the 2023 Kluge Prize awardee, Dr. George Chauncey.

Musicians visiting the American Folklife Center
Ukrainian and Ukrainian-American delegation of musicians visiting the American Folklife Center. Front row (l to r): James Kogan, Ezra Halleck, Ilya Fetysov, Stepan Andrushchenko, Ihor Poshyvailo, Bozena Hrycyna, Nara Narimanova; Back row (l to r) Maria Kennedy, Anatolii Soroka, Laryssa Czebinisky, Dara Sereda, Mariya Kvitka, Susana Karpenko, Yaroslav Dzhus, Tania Poshyvailo, AFC Folklife Specialist Douglas D. Peach, Marharyta Kokoshko, Sofiia Andrushchenko, Jim Deutsch, Yehor Savin, Katya Chilly, Iryna Sizyk, Zoya Shepko, Veronika Seleha. Photo taken on July 5, 2023 by AFC Folklife Specialist Stephen Winick.


Meanwhile, staff was busy creating 172 online resources that supported and encouraged use of the Library’s collections. Reference and public programs staff authored 75 blog posts and eight Research Guides, while also creating 12 podcast episodes across two series, America Works and Folklife Today. Most AFC programming is accessible online, including the Homegrown concert series, Benjamin Botkin lectures, a symposium on the Federal Writers Project, the Archives Challenge, as well as a Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series.

Dr. Marilyn White giving a lecture in September 2023.
Dr. Marilyn White, retired Professor of Folklore at Kean University and Former AFC Board Member, delivering a Benjamin A. Botkin Lecture at the Library of Congress on September 16, 2023. Photo by Douglas D. Peach.

Research Guides detailed collections and resources connected to topics ranging from the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Awards since its inception in 1982 and African American banjo music to historic preservation and shape-note singing. A guide was also created to provide external organizations with the tools and structure for hosting an Archive Challenge event.

Jake Blount performing
Jake Blount performing at the Library of Congress on February 23, 2023. Photo by Steve Winick.

Staff published 14 new EAD finding aids and made substantive updates to an additional 17 finding aids. The collections described include the Joseph Sciorra collection, Linda LaMacchia collection, Frances Densmore papers, John Cohen collection, and Omaha Powwow Project collection. Additionally, AFC created 46 collection-level catalog records and 173 new name authority records. The creation of new name authority records is especially important to AFC’s mission, as it elevates the visibility of individuals who are often not represented in any other archival repository.

Better tools

We spent a lot of time adopting new technologies, policies and protocols to help make our collections more accessible.

In July, we unveiled a new AFC website with improved accessibility to information and a more responsive and mobile-friendly user experience. Content syndication allows for quick notification of new collections, events, research guides, and other digital resources.

We worked with Library technologists to create a Digital Submission Portal to receive born-digital collections directly from trusted partners. This will make it easier for collection donors to submit materials to AFC, including the Veterans History Project. The tool, based on user research and other metrics, is now being tested by select donors. AFC staff also participated in multiple rounds of user testing and data validation leading up to the official launch in October of AVCMS, an internal content management system for AV collections stored at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC).

Actor Morgan Freeman looks over a display of Veterans History Project collections with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and the VHP’s Megan Harris during a visit to the Library as part of CBS News interview, August 2, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.
Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

AFC continued its participation in Library initiatives that formalized and openly communicated Library standards of Native American collections. Staff contributed to the development of the Materials Relating to Indigenous Peoples Materials: Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

Within the Folklife Center, Librarian in Residence Andrea Decker led a Rights Management Working Group to align how the Center determines, documents and communicates the rights status of its ethnographic collection. The working group, comprised of AFC staff with assistance from the Office of General Counsel, developed a final report with recommendations.

Finally, staff and Board members drafted an iterative three-year plan leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Center in 2026. The established goals and objectives centered around three main areas of activity: Build, Steward, and Engage. Overarching themes included 1. Center community voice in all aspects of our work; 2. Ensure efficient and ethical access to our collections and services; 3. Get people excited to be a part of the Center’s future.

As we embark on a new year, we, too, are excited about the Center’s future. We are also grateful for everyone who attends our events, researches our collections, shares their traditional knowledge and expertise, and otherwise enables us to preserve and present living cultural traditions. I remain grateful for our capable and committed staff, who work hard to fulfill the Center’s mission.

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