As noted in a recent post on this blog, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress will be launching a Community Collections Fellowship program under the Library’s “Of the People” initiative funded with support from the Mellon Foundation. This program will enable people to conduct fieldwork documenting the cultural activities and experiences that are happening right now in their home communities. The resulting collections of interviews, photographs, written descriptions, or other types of documentation will be from their own perspectives— and will expand the range of contemporary folklife or cultural heritage found in the Library’s collections while also adding to holdings in local institutions.
Folklife can be thought of as the wide range of traditions and practices that give shape to local culture—e.g. language, food, music, stories, dress, beliefs, material culture or craft, games, celebrations—and help us identify the community (or, more often, communities) that we participate in on a daily basis. By no means exhaustive, this short list of potential components of local culture hopefully provides a sense of the kinds of materials that the AFC holds in its archive, and wants to help Community Collection Fellows document. While this fellowship program is new, it builds on long-running efforts by the American Folklife Center to work in and with communities in order to preserve and present folklife in all of its diversity.
Continuing this legacy at the Center is exciting, and one of the touchstones for the new fellowship program is what staff at the Center collectively call the “field surveys.” Between the mid-1970s and the late 1990s, the American Folklife Center coordinated a series of field surveys across the United States. These were large-scale projects in specific geographic and cultural areas that AFC staff planned and conducted, often drawing on locally-based documentarians who worked on contract. Many of these projects occurred with the help of partner organizations at the federal or state level, and were intended to generate significant collections that could serve multiple purposes: establish cultural centers, form the core of exhibits, inspire public programming, or become archival resources tracing the cultural trajectory of people and places.
To get a an overview of where these field surveys took place, and the kinds of cultural documentation that they comprise, be sure to visit the Story Map published by the American Folklife Center:
Through this interactive online resource, you can ‘tour’ the field survey locations and get a sampling of the content. There are plenty of opportunities to jump directly to the online collections represented in the Story Map, so feel free to explore!
The collaborative nature of these field surveys serves as context and inspiration for the Community Collections Fellowships. Through coordination with a wide range of organizations, and directly with community members as participants in fieldwork, AFC built up significant documentation of cultural life across the United States over a period of about twenty years through the field surveys that we planned. Now, we want to work directly with communities by supporting ethnographic projects that they conceptualize and plan. With Library funding and guidance in fieldwork methods by AFC staff, communities will be able to produce documentation and archival collections that represent their perspectives, generating resources that can be used locally in any number of creative ways while also enriching that national cultural record as part of the American Folklife Center’s archive.