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Gold Miners, Circus Performers, and Hairdressers – Stories from the Occupational Folklife Project

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This post was written by Nancy Groce, an ethnomusicologist and folklorist who is a Senior Folklife Specialist in the American Folklife Center. 

Photograph of Randall Spann (left), steersman, and Sean McDonald (right), steersman of Higman Marine Services, by the stern deck of the M/V orange, Port of Houston Collection.

After years of planning, research, fieldwork, and archiving, the American Folklife Center is excited to begin online posting of material from its Occupational Folklife Project, a major oral history initiative featuring in-depth interviews with contemporary workers throughout the United States. Since 2010, the American Folklife Center has awarded more than 45 Archie Green Fellowships to individual fieldworkers, as well as scholars and research teams at non-profit organizations, unions, and universities, to support oral history projects interviewing workers in diverse jobs, trades, and professions. Interviewees are asked to talk about what they do at work, their work history, how they learned the skills required to do their jobs, what they think about their careers, and how they foresee the future of their professions. To date, more than 900 born-digital audio and video interviews have been submitted. Most are 45-60 minutes in length and many include online fieldnotes, photographs, and supplementary materials. A specially-designed digital “indexing system” permits online researchers to compare overarching work-related topics discussed by individual interviewees.

Six Occupational Folklife Project collections are now available on the Library’s website:

  • “Cultural Traditions of Ironworkers in the Midwest,” oral history interviews documenting the culture and traditions of ironworkers in Illinois and Wisconsin;
  • “Gold Mining in Nevada,” documenting the voices of contemporary gold miners in northern Nevada;
  • “Working the Port of Houston,” featuring more than 50 interviews documenting the diverse culture of workers associated with the Houston Ship Channel;
  • “The ‘Big Top’ Show Goes On,” documenting the complex occupational culture, training, and experiences of  multi-generation circus workers in Oklahoma;
  • “Stable Views: Voices and Stories from the Thoroughbred Racetrack,” documenting “back-of-track” workers employed in the care and training of racehorses;
  • “Hairdressers and Beauty Shop Culture in America,” documenting the culture and traditions of beauty shop culture in five American towns and cities; and “Taking Care: Documenting the Occupational Culture of Home Health Care Workers” in Oregon.
Hairdresser Patrick Wellington, owner of Wellington Spa, working with a client, Victoria Dillard,in his New York establishment. Photo by Candacy Taylor. Hairdressers collection.

Soon-to-be posted collections include interviews with electricians in New York City, meat packing-house workers in Iowa, funeral home employees in South Carolina, and small business owners in Louisiana. To access online collections, please visit:

Inspired by the Library’s WPA “American Life Histories,” which was 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), the Occupational Folklife Project seeks to compile fieldwork on American workers that will enrich and expand the holdings of the American Folklife Center archive both for today’s researchers and for future generations of archive users. With that in mind, since their inception, the American Folklife Center prioritized funding for projects designed to document occupations and trades 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.

Find out more about the history and development of the Occupational Folklife Project by visiting Folklife Centers-occupational-folklife-project-goes-online-with-working-the-port-of-houston-collection/  For further information about Occupational Folklife Project collections that are currently underway or are being processed for future posting, contact American Folklife Center folklorist Nancy Groce [email protected] .

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