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Work in Progress: New Story Map on the AFC’s Occupational Folklife Collections

A group of women electricians taking a selfie at the 2017 Women's March in New York City.

Jasmine Gould with fellow electricians at the 2017 Women’s March, New York City. Photo provided for the AFC’s Occupational Folklife Collection, Illuminating History: Union Electricians in New York City. Find the archival image here.

We are excited to announce the new Library story map, Work in Progress: The American Folklife Center’s Occupational Folklife Collections, which explores the many collections in the AFC archives dedicated to documenting “occupational folklife,” or work culture, and people’s work-related histories and experiences in places across the country.

Check out the Work in Progress story map here!

The title page of the Work in Progress story map featuring iron workers on the top of a building in Chicago.

The title page of the Work in Progress story map featuring iron workers on the top of the State of Illinois Building in Chicago (probably in 1985). Photo courtesy of Henry “Bud” Martens for the AFC OFP collection, Cultural Traditions of Ironworkers of the Upper Midwest. Find archival image here.

Work in Progress brings much-needed spotlight to the Center’s Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) Collections, especially those that have been made accessible via the Library’s website over these past years. Indeed, dozens of OFP Collections have been generated by fieldworkers since 2010, when the OFP program was established, and almost thirty OFP collections – comprising some 600+ interviews – are now available online.

The majority of OFP collections are based on documentation projects supported by the annual AFC Archie Green Fellowships, named after folklorist Archie Green (1917-2009) to honor his life-long dedication to documenting “laborlore.” Through the Fellowships, fieldworkers across the nation have recorded over 1,300 oral history interviews with workers in scores of trades, industries, crafts, and professions. (Read about this year’s Archie Green Fellows here.)

The OFP program was inspired by the Work Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writers Project. During the Great Depression, researchers fanned out across the country to record interviews for the “American Life Histories” project. The resultant archival collection, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, includes documentation of people’s jobs and work experiences.

Electrician Kim Spicer on a ladder at work in a building in New York City

Kim Spicer at work in the Mondrian Hotel, Manhattan, New York, 2017. On the photo, she states: “I was in the middle of a wire pull. There was a little break in between pulls so I asked for my photo to be taken, especially since this is improper ladder usage which I’ve been repeatedly told through out my career as an electrician.” Photo provided for the OFP Illuminating History collection. Find the archival image here.

As noted, the Work in Progress story map focuses on a number of online OFP Collections, and the remarkable people – via interviews and photographs – who are documented in them. Scrolling through, one can listen to workers discuss their jobs and reflect on formative work experiences, as well as their training, challenges they faced, and the occupational communities to which they belong. In many cases, they discuss the choices and educational paths that led them to their present jobs, and share their thoughts on the future of their professions.

One example is Kim Spicer, an electrician, journey wire-woman, and proud member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local #3 in Queens, New York. Spicer was interviewed for the 2016 Archie Green Fellowship-supported project, Illuminating History: Union Electricians in New York City, led by New York-based researcher and electrician Jaime Lopez, who documented the culture of over twenty IBEW Local #3 electricians.

In her interview, Spicer talks about how she tried other, less-fulfilling jobs before apprenticing to become an electrician. She also discusses her training, the tasks and skills involved in her work, and the challenges of being a woman in a traditionally male trade. She states: “For some reason, ever since I was a first-year apprentice, they like putting me on the ‘bull gang,’ which is the people that pull the wire or set up these big wire pulls — like 600s, like big! But I got it done. So I guess they saw that I had some sort of strength and they kept putting me on it.”

Spicer’s interview is also featured on the AFC’s America Works podcast, which features OFP interviews in its dozens of episodes since 2020, and that the story map draws on throughout its journey into the occupational folklife collections.

Other spotlighted collections in Work in Progress include: Women Architects (from across the U.S.);  Trash Talk: Workers in Vermont’s Waste Management Industry; and materials that predate the OFP program, such as Zora Neale Hurston’s late-1930s work for the Federal Writers Project in Florida and the 1994 Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting collection. So, click on over to Work in Progress to explore these rich collections, and stay tuned for more AFC story maps later this year!

This post was co-written with Nancy Groce, AFC Senior Folklife Specialist.

Ukrainian Traditions on the Folklife Today Podcast

We’re back with another episode of the Folklife Today podcast, this one on Ukrainian Traditions! The latest Russian invasion of Ukraine occurred just days before our most recent previous episode was released, and we’ve been thinking since then of our Ukrainian friends and colleagues. So we decided to do an episode of the Folklife Today podcast focusing on Ukrainian materials and traditions in the Archive. Find links to it in this blog post, along with links to related Ukrainian content, videos, and audio selections. 

Irish American Women on the Folklife Today Podcast

We’re back with another episode of the Folklife Today podcast! To round out both Women’s History Month and Irish American Heritage Month, we’re presenting A Tribute to Irish American Women. As usual, I’ll present links to relevant blog posts, videos, and audio selections in this post, as well as the link to download the podcast.

Songs of Spring on the Folklife Today Podcast

We’ve had some scheduling challenges which led to an unexpected hiatus, but we’re back with another episode of the Folklife Today podcast! Since springtime keeps threatening to bust through the cold weather, we’re featuring songs of spring. Find it on Stitcher, iTunes, or your usual podcatcher–or find it at the link we provide from this blog. Also in the blog, see photos find links to most of the songs with more contextual information!

The Third Season of the ‘America Works’ Podcast is Here!

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress is kicking off 2022 with the much-awaited third season of “America Works,” a podcast series celebrating the diversity, resilience and creativity of American workers in the face of economic uncertainty. The new season, launched today, features riveting stories from a teacher and workers at a circus, a meat plant, a vineyard, and a now-closed Boeing factory, among others. The first episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and at loc.gov/podcasts. Subsequent episodes will be released each Thursday through March 10, 2022. This blog post contains links and an episode guide to the season.

La Llorona on the Folklife Today Podcast

Halloween and Día de Muertos are almost here! So, believe it or not, Season 4, Episode 1 of the Folklife Today Podcast, our 2021 Halloween and Día de Muertos episode, is ready for listening! It features interviews about the Weeping Woman, La Llorona, a spirit from Latin American folklore, plus related songs and stories. The people interviewed are Juan Díes, leader of the Sones de Mexico Ensemble, Camille Acosta, who wrote her masters thesis on La Llorona before interning at AFC, and Allina Migoni, AFC’s Latinx subject specialist. This blog contains links to download the podcast, background on our guests, and links to full audio of the songs.

Music from Homegrown 21 on the Folklife Today Podcast

Summer is over, and autumn is here. That means the Homegrown 2021 concert series is also drawing to a close. We put a selection of songs from the series on the Folklife Today podcast, with commentary from me, John Fenn, series producer Thea Austen, and AFC interns Kennedi Johnson and Camille Acosta.  That way, if you haven’t had a chance to watch the videos, you can download and listen wherever you like to hear your podcasts. As usual, there are links to the podcast itself, plus links to relevant blog posts, videos, and audio selections in this post.

More Summer Songs on the Folklife Today Podcast

This post gives background to our latest episode of the Folklife Today podcast. This episode continues our look at songs about summer, from the amorous adventures of young lovers to the backbreaking work done by convicts in the sun. Hosts John Fenn and Stephen Winick, along with guest Jennifer Cutting, present their favorite summer songs. Songs include the English “Sweet Primroses;” the Trinidadian “One Fine Summer’s Morning” and “June Come, You No Marry;” the Tuvan “In Summer Pastures;” the African American work song “Worked All Summer Long;” and the Basque “When the Sun Shines Everywhere, How Good the Shade is!”

Summer Songs on the Folklife Today Podcast

Season 3, Episode 9 of the Folklife Today Podcast is ready for listening! Find it on the Library’s website, or on Stitcher, iTunes, or your usual podcatcher. In this episode John Fenn and I, along with guests Nicole Saylor and Jennifer Cutting, look at songs on summer themes. The podcast includes Appalachian, African American, French Canadian, Finnish, Tuvan, and Irish songs. As usual, I present links to relevant blog posts, videos, and audio selections in this post.

August Online Symposium Will Feature Folklore Podcasters and Social Media Leaders

The American Folklife Center is pleased to announce Traditional Folklore in a Digital World, a two-part symposium on August 17 and 24 examining some of the ways folklore is spread, discussed, and transformed in the digital environment. The symposium will bring together leading podcasters and influential figures in social media who are helping define what folklore is in the 21st century. It will consist of two Zoom-based panels, one on podcasts and the other on social media. Each panel brings together four compelling leaders in online folklore, who will present a brief rundown of what they do, and then take questions from the audience. AFC staff, including me, will be there to moderate and direct the questions. The podcast panel features the hosts of Lore, Crimelore, The Folklore Podcast, and Jack Dappa Blues and the African American Folklorist. The Social Media panel features folks from Folklore Thursday, Folk Horror Revival, and the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic. We hope you’ll join us for a fascinating discussion. Both panels are free and open to the public, but registration is required.  (Don’t worry, the links to register are in this post!)