The following is a guest post by Nancy Groce, Senior Folklife Specialist and Director of the Occupational Folklife Project.
After seven years of planning, research, fieldwork, and archiving, the American Folklife Center is delighted to announce that the first installment of its Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) launches today on the Library of Congress’s website with a collection of more than 50 interviews of workers in Houston, Texas. OFP is a major oral history initiative documenting the diverse culture of contemporary workers throughout the United States.
The Working the Port of Houston collection features 54 in-depth interviews recorded in 2011 and 2012 by a team of Texas-based folklorists and fieldworkers. Led by the noted folklorist Pat Jasper, Director of Folklife and Civic Engagement at the Houston Arts Alliance, a team of more than a dozen researchers documented the work experiences of river pilots, marine firefighters, longshoremen, tugboat operators, port engineers, union organizers, employees of port-related businesses, and the many other workers who keep one of America’s busiest ports humming. The engaging audio interviews, which are now easily accessible on the LOC’s website, are supplemented by online field notes and photographs. A specially-designed digital “indexing system” permits online listeners to compare overarching work-related topics discussed by individual interviewees.
As AFC Director Betsy Peterson notes:
With the launch of AFC’s innovative Occupational Folklife Project, researchers and members of the public will have direct access to hundreds of hours of compelling fieldwork. They will able to hear the interviews and view fieldwork images and documentation that previously could be accessed only by visiting the Library in Washington.
“Working the Port of Houston” is the first of more than 40 Occupational Folklife Project collections documenting diverse jobs and trades throughout the United States scheduled to be made available on the Library’s website in the coming months. The “Working the Port of Houston” project was supported by a 2011 AFC Archie Green Fellowship to Pat Jasper, at the Houston Arts Alliance, and her colleague and fellow folklorist Professor Carl Lindahl, at the University of Houston, following a competitive application process. Since 2010, more than 40 Archie Green Fellowships have been awarded to individual fieldworkers, scholars, and researchers at non-profit organizations and universities to facilitate work-related oral history collecting projects across the United States.
Other Occupational Folklife Project collections scheduled for posting on the Library’s website in the near future include interviews with hairdressers and beauty shop owners, big-top and circus workers, home health care workers in Oregon and New York, iron workers in the Upper Midwest, and rangers in the National Park Service.
The Occupational Folklife Project at the American Folklife Center
This week’s launch of the Occupational Folklife Project is the culmination of an innovative, multi-year effort to design, test and implement a sophisticated method of collecting, managing and preserving “born-digital” fieldwork from numerous geographically-dispersed fieldworkers in a systematic, relatively inexpensive, and easy-to-use way.
To date, using the specially designed website developed in-house by AFC staff, dozens of fieldworkers, working alone and in teams across the United States, have recorded and submitted more than 600 in-depth audio and audiovisual oral history interviews with workers in scores of trades, industries, crafts and professions. The interviews average 50-60 minutes in length. Each interview is digitally recorded, and features an individual worker discussing current jobs and formative work experiences, reflecting on training, on-the-job challenges and rewards, aspirations, and occupational communities. Interviewers are provided with a short list of suggested “core” questions to provide general guidance and stimulate discussion, but are also free to substitute other questions that are more relevant to a specific interview. After obtaining a signed release form, the interviewer then uploads the digitally-recorded oral history interview, accompanied by an AFC-designed online metadata form containing specific information about each interview, and sends both electronically to the AFC for processing. Information on the metadata form includes the time and place of the interview, information about the interviewee, time-coded logs or transcriptions of the interview, and information about the interviewers. A systematic and uniform labeling system is also added during this process.
After AFC receives each submission, the digital files are reviewed to make sure everything is in order, and the interview becomes a permanent part of the AFC archive. Copies of the OFP interviews and metadata are also being prepared for online use and will be made available through the Library’s website on a collection-by-collection basis.
Designing an Online Oral History Collecting Project
One of the things that makes the OFP so innovative is that all the fieldwork interviews and the supporting metadata are “born-digital,” i.e., created and submitted only as digital files. Fieldworkers are trained to submit their documentation through a sophisticated but user-friendly online metadata form. Designed by an in-house AFC team spearheaded by OFP Project Director Nancy Groce and then AFC Digital Assets Manager Betram Lyons, the metadata form allows the AFC archivists to receive and manage large amounts of fieldwork data from diverse fieldworkers through a single online portal which ensures consistency in submissions.
Because the fieldworker has already assisted us with much of the processing, each interview can be rapidly catalogued and ingested into the AFC archive, where it is made available to researchers here at the Library, and shared with online patrons around the world. After years of planning and development by AFC staff, the exciting launch of the “Working the Port of Houston” website is evidence that the system works!
American Life Histories
The AFC’s interest in the digital future is firmly rooted in the Library’s pre-digital past. Few oral history or occupational folklife collections are better known or more frequently cited than the Library’s American Life Histories. Compiled between 1936 and 1940 under the direction of Benjamin Botkin and the staff of the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project for the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA), and later deposited at the Library, the collection includes 2,900 documents created by over 300 writer/interviewers from 24 states. The interviews they collected, which are typically 2,000-15,000 word summaries, vary in form and quality and cover a wide variety of topics, but are arguably most valuable for the information and insights they provide on the experiences of American workers at the height of the Great Depression.
The Occupational Folklife Project traces its beginnings to winter 2009, during a period of economic uncertainty reminiscent of the 1930s, when the board and staff of the American Folklife Center began discussing the importance of documenting occupational lore and life in contemporary America through recorded oral history interviews. The American Life Histories were inspirational, all agreed, but the feasibility of launching a collecting project approaching the size and geographic breadth of the WPA project seemed unrealistic, especially given the straitened funding climate.
At this point, the AFC began to consider whether an entirely new model might be in order. In the digital age, our thoughts were drawn to the possibility of a digital collecting project. Was it possible, we wondered, to design a website with an online data-submission application that would allow us to coordinate a nationwide oral history collecting project — one that was both cost- and labor-efficient? Could we build a user-friendly, “public-facing” application that would simultaneously reinforce best practices in folklife and oral history collecting and also provide an easy way for electronic documentary materials to be transmitted to the AFC? If so, what data and metadata should we request from interviewers and partnering organizations? How would we maintain the project’s focus and quality? What would be the legal and security implications? And how would we manage the resulting information to ensure that it would be discoverable and accessible by future researchers? And while we were at it, could we ask fieldworkers to submit their data using consistent, easy-to-manage protocols and formats that would assist us in cataloging and processing the incoming materials? We decided to give it a try.
Under the direction of Bertram Lyons, then AFC’s Digital Assets Manager, and with lots of help from the rest of the AFC staff, an Oracle/APEX program was customized to accommodate and standardize the acquisition (“ingestion”) of interviews from diverse fieldworkers documenting a wide variety of occupations. (For details on the technical aspects of the OFP, see Designing a National Online Oral History Collecting Initiative at Oral History in the Digital Age.)
After initial in-house testing, several colleagues from across the country—most notably Professor James P. Leary, then the Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin — provided indispensable assistance by having their students “beta test” the initial program. With their help and suggestions, the all-important online metadata form as well as instructions for its use was improved, and protocols for sending, receiving, and managing electronic files were refined. Throughout this process, we tried to make sure that the OFP submission process remained user-friendly, since not all fieldworkers are equally adept with digital technology. (The author speaks from personal experience.)
Archie Green Fellowships
Of equal importance to the successful development of the Occupational Folklife Project was far-sighted decision in 2010 by the American Folklife Center’s Board of Trustees to set aside approximately $100,000 from the AFC’s annual budget to fund modest fieldwork projects documenting American workers. The new fellowship, which was to be awarded through a competitive application process, was named the Archie Green Fellowship to honor the memory of Archie Green (1917-2009), a pioneering folklorist who championed the establishment of the American Folklife Center and who, throughout this career, was particularly dedicated to documenting and analyzing the cultures and traditions of American workers.
Since 2010, the Archie Green Fellowship panel has annually selected four to six documentation projects through a competitive application and review process. Since 2011, as a condition of their award, all Archie Green Fellows have been required to submit their fieldwork via the online digital submission process described above. The Archie Green Fellowship is unusual in the world of funding because it focuses on funding basic fieldwork. Supporting grassroots collecting has been a centerpiece of the AFC archive since the 1930s when, as the Archive of American Folk-Song, it supported field collecting trips by John and Alan Lomax, Benjamin Botkin, and Charles Seeger. Of course, the AFC is delighted that Archie Green Fellowship fieldwork is often used as the basis of subsequent exhibitions, articles, public programs, books, and in one case even an opera; however, AFC funding is directed specifically at collecting and preserving the unedited voices of American workers.
Ultimately, the goal of both the Archie Green Fellowships and the Occupational Folklife Project, through which the resulting fieldwork is being submitted, is to enrich and expand the holdings of the AFC archive both for today’s researchers and for future generations of archive users. With that in mind, since their inception, the Archie Green Fellowships have prioritized projects designed to document occupations and communities that are currently underrepresented in our holdings. These include occupations whose members are primarily female or Hispanic and trades and occupations whose workers have rarely been recorded in the past. For example, Archie Green Fellows have been awarded for the documentation of public school teachers in Wisconsin, home health care workers in Oregon, domestic workers in Brooklyn, New York, produce workers in Nogales, Arizona, and meatpacking workers in Iowa. Other fellows have enabled a team from the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program to document the occupational culture and traditions of the American “Big Top” circus in the small town of Hugo, Oklahoma; allowed the Kansas Humanities Council, in cooperation with the Wichita-Sedgwich County History Museum, to document the voices of Boeing workers in urban Kansas; supported researchers from the Louisiana Folklore Society as they recorded the oral histories of small business owners in Baton Rouge; made it possible for community-based researchers in the Connecticut River Valley to record the recollections of regional tobacco growers; and permitted an independent folklorist from Los Angles to travel to five U.S. cities to document the occupational culture of hairdressers and beauty shop workers. (In addition to fieldworkers supported by Archie Green Fellowships, some individual researchers and groups have also volunteered to participate in the OFP without Library funding. These include the Oral History Committee of the National Press Club, a Library employee documenting the book binding trade, and folklore students enrolled in several graduate courses.) It is the scope and diversity of these interviews and the ease with which AFC’s newly launched protocol will allow researchers to locate and listen to the archival interviews that make us so excited about the potential uses of the Occupational Folklife Project.
An upcoming Folklife Today article will feature more details about the “Working the Port of Houston” OFP as well as tips about how researchers might want to make use of this new resource. Until then, please check out the Occupational Folklife Project website. Finally, we would like to point out that the OFP joins three major AFC fieldwork projects from decades past that have recently been added to the Library’s web site. These important AFC field survey projects conducted between 1977 and 1997 documenting traditional culture in Chicago Montana, and South Central Georgia are now available online. Like the OFP, they contain interviews and images that have been previously unavailable or difficult to access outside the AFC.
We hope you share our excitement about the launch of the “Working the Port of Houston” project and the access it provides to the compelling interviews collected by folklorist Pat Jasper and her colleagues at the Houston Art Alliance. In addition to being a lasting testimonial to the knowledge, eloquence, and dedication of contemporary American workers at the dawn of the 21st century, it also reflects AFC’s continued commitment to actively documenting grassroots and traditional culture throughout the world. It is one of several ongoing initiatives to expand and enhance our archival holdings and to preserve such documentation for future researchers. It is also an excellent example of how AFC continues to use pioneering technology and innovative programming to share our resources with the public.