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Three women standing together, half-length portrait
Dr. Lucille Rayford, Gevona Lawton, and Carmen L. Vaughn-Hewitt are nurses and sorors of the Chi Eta Phi sorority. Their collection was the 50th Occupational Folklife Project collection to go online.

Celebrating the Online Launch of the Fiftieth Occupational Folklife Project – And How It Got There!

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This is a guest post by AFC folklife specialist Nancy Groce.

In mid-April, the American Folklife Center posted another noteworthy Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) collection to the Library’s website. We are excited to point out that it was the 50th collection of oral history interviews with contemporary American workers to be made available online!

Celebrating this milestone also gives us the chance to highlight the contributions of two of the many hardworking AFC staff members who do the complicated behind-the-scenes work of processing Archie Green Fellows’ (AGF) fieldwork into OFP collections, accessioning these collections (i.e. officially adding them to the AFC archive), and then making them available to online patrons.

“African American Nurses: The Chi Eta Phi Sorority” was the 50th OFP collection to be posted online. Consisting of 15 in-depth interviews with members of a renowned historically Black national nursing sorority, the Chi Eta Phi collection was proposed and completed by nurse and oral historian Carmen Vaughn-Hewitt with funding from a 2021 Archie Green Fellowship. It joins 49 other OFPs currently available online that feature interviews with workers in occupations as varied as electricians, schoolteachers, physicians, farmers, mail carriers and architects. (Visit the Occupational Folklife Project’s home page for a complete list of collections.)

While OFP interviews (and OFP spin-off projects such as the America Works Podcast series) enjoy significant visibility among colleagues, researchers, educators, and members of the public, OFP has also received attention among archivists because it is an entirely “born digital” project. Unlike earlier folklore projects for which researchers submitted physical documentation (e.g., wax cylinders, acetate disks, reel-to-reel tapes, photographs, written fieldnotes), since its inception in 2010 all AGF/OFP research has been created and submitted digitally.

Working With Digital Fieldwork

A woman in a ranger uniform is interviewed by a man who operates a video camera.
Folklorist Brent Bjökrman interviews Kathy Proffitt, Daily Operations Supervisor at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, about her job as part of the 2014 OFP “Ranger Lore: The Occupational Folklife of Park Rangers.”

Archie Green Fellows are selected through a competitive application process and some awardees have more experience doing oral history projects and working with digital materials than others. To ensure that their digital documentation is created and preserved according to the best AFC/LOC archival standards, Fellows work closely with AFC staff members throughout the fieldwork, documentation and submission process.

Just as important as identifying interviewees and recording their stories, the fieldwork for each oral history interview must be carefully labeled and metadata  (information about the information) must be created and added to every digital file before AFC staff can review and accession it into the archive.

As computer users know, downloading or creating documents is only part of the challenge of working with digital materials – being able to find items again quickly and easily is equally important. Imagine the challenges of doing this in a computer system as massive as the Library’s! The AFC archive alone contains some 8 million items.

To get an overview of how AFC staff works with AGFs to “bring in” a collection – by which we mean create metadata; transmit and then download digital files; securely store, label, and accession them; and finally adapt the data for inclusion in the Library’s loc.gov framework for online access – I spoke with two of my colleagues: Matthew A. Smith, AFC’s Senior Cataloging Specialist, and Steve Berkley, AFC’s Digital Library Specialist, whose work is essential to the OFP. They are the latest in a line of talented co-workers who have developed and expanded the OFP collections over the years. Although much of what they do is a bit technical for this short blog, I asked them to walk me through the major tasks they need to do when they process and share an OFP collection on the Library’s website.

From Fieldwork to Archival Collection

A man sits at a desk.
Matthew Smith at work in his AFC office. Photo by Valda Morris.

Soon after Archie Green Fellowships are officially announced each spring, the AFC schedules an online “cohort meeting” to introduce the new researchers to each other and to the AFC staff members with whom they will be working. Initial cohort meetings focus on doing fieldwork and interviews, the ethics of ethnographic and archival work, obtaining required permission forms, etc. Several months later, when an AGF has completed or almost completed their fieldwork, they schedule an individual online meeting with Matthew Smith. During this meeting, Matthew conducts a detailed walk-through of how to fill out AFC’s required reporting forms with their metadata and how to label digital files. This is often followed by subsequent emails, phone calls and conversations as Matthew answers cataloging questions that arise as fieldworkers prepare their fieldwork for submission.

Matthew, a Cataloging Specialist who has been at the AFC for five years, describes himself as a “translator,” who works with fieldworkers to translate their research into the more rigid descriptive language of library catalogers. OFP is just one of numerous AFC projects on which he works, but it is atypical because he works directly with the fieldworkers who are in the midst of creating their collections. In addition to metadata, he trains fieldworkers how to carefully label each digital file using AFC’s file naming convention.  (A single interview typically consists of numerous digital files—at a minimum an audio or video interview file, a written transcription file, several photographs, and a release form.)

In addition to labeling the actual files, Matthew helps fieldworkers fill out Metadata sheets with information about when and where their interviews took place, the people involved, and the formats and sizes of their digital files. They are also asked to select standardized descriptive terms from cataloging resources such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings and the AFS Ethnographic Thesaurus. When necessary, Matthew also works with the fieldworkers to add new specialized and regional occupational terms.

Once fieldworkers have labeled all their digital files and filled in the Metadata sheets, they send their fieldwork to the AFC through AFC’s secure internet transfer system. When the material arrives, Matthew downloads the data and confirms that each of the digital files listed on the Metadata sheet has arrived and is correctly labeled. The collection is then moved to LOC’s digital repository which is not directly accessible to the internet for permanent storage, and copies of the collection are made which will be used by staff to prepare accessible copies of the collection for researchers and online public access. Once Matthew finishes “bringing in a collection,” he reviews it for completeness and creates catalog records for each the hundreds of files involved in every OFP collection and send it on to AFC’s Digital Librarian Specialist Steve Berkley.

Preparing a Collection for Posting on the Library’s Website

A man sits at a computer among shelves, with a reel of film in one hand.
Steve Berkley working on collections in the Library stacks. Photo by Steve Winick.

Originally from Washington, DC and with training as an historian, Steve Berkley has been at the Library for 16 years and at AFC for the last 6 of those. Among Steve’s OFP related responsibilities is to “grab” all the digital files for a collection that Matthew has brought in and prepare it for public access on the Library’s public-facing platform–the one you see when you visit the OFP area of loc.gov.

Steve works with OFP director Nancy Groce to review audio/video recordings and transcriptions, check that descriptions and photo captions are accurate; and make sure interviews do not contain PII (Personally Identifiable Information) such as home addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth or other issues. He prepares thumbnail images to display in the players for the videos; selects photos for the collection’s main page; and checks that all images and photos are ready for display. (Most OFP interviews include 4-6 photos but some include many more.) Most importantly, he creates the digital architecture that connects each audio, video, text or image file with their listing on the OFP’s public facing page so when a patron clicks on an item, the text or sound or video will be served. AFC staff collaborates on deciding when a collection is ready to be launched. He asks some AFC processing and programming staff to assist with a final in-house review, fixes any issues and works toward a release date with the Library’s Chief Information Officer. The number of steps and details Steve needs to attend to is truly impressive.

Given that so many library catalogers and digital information specialists work far away from public view, I wondered how my colleagues liked working on the OFP, which puts them in more direct contact with the fieldworkers. It turns out, they both loved it: “It’s a lot of work, but rewarding,” Steve said. He noted that he was particularly proud that his work has contributed to AFC being able to post so many OFPs: “The 50th OFP [posting] is a milestone that I want to point out…because 5 years ago there were less than 10 OFPs available online.” He finds the OFP an important and a rewarding project to work on because it is preserving the diverse voices of everyday Americans and because it will make their lives and their contributions available to future Library researchers and patrons.

Matthew was enthusiastic about working directly with fieldworkers and being able to “connect what the Fellows are doing with what future researchers might be looking for or need to know.” He particularly likes working to develop and add new keywords, terms, and jargon specific to particular trades to the Library of Congress catalog and connect them with already extant cataloging terms.

Did he have a favorite OFP collection? Actually, he had several: all the ones having to do with agriculture, because he knew little about the subject. He likes Hope for Recovery, which features interviews with peer support counselors in Kentucky, and admired how open and eloquent the interviewees were about facing the challenges in their lives. He also likes Trash Talk, interviews with workers in Vermont’s waste management industry. “I had no idea so many different occupations were involved with trash collection and recycling. And I really liked the company, Draft Trash in Middlebury, that goes out on their route with horses.”

Three horses pull a large wagon. A woman tends to a horse's hoof and a man examines the wagon.
Draft Trash crew on Middlebury, Vermont, getting the horses ready for the route at 5:00 am on an October morning. OFP Trash Talk Collection. Photograph by Virginia Nickleson.

As for Steve, does he have a favorite OFP collection?  “Maybe Ranger Lore: The Occupational Folklore of Park Rangers , but maybe because that took so much work to prepare. Or Commercial Bookbinders — that’s kind of a sleeper collection. There aren’t any photos and you think, ‘commercial bookbinders?’ But then when you start listening to the interviews they’re just bursting with information. It’s a collection that should be really popular with librarians.”

This short blog only scratches the surface of the enormous amount of skilled labor, technical knowledge, and behind-the-scenes coordination needed to get a digital collection like OFP processed, accessioned, online, and accessible to the public . With the launch of the 50th OFP, the AFC has almost eliminated a backlog of earlier OFPs and is now turning its attention to posting more recently completed projects. Two more OFPs will be published soon and a new round of Archie Green Fellowships is about to announced. With the help of AFC staff like Steve Berkley and Matthew Smith, we look forward to making these new collections available and accessible!

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