Further Context for the Community Collections Fellowship Program

A few weeks ago, this blog published a post reflecting on previous cultural documentation work the American Folklife Center (AFC) conducted through our ‘field survey’ projects. I offered that post as a way to provide historical context for the Community Collections Fellowship program that AFC is launching within the Of the People initiative at the Library of Congress. Today’s post brings another facet of contextual activity into the mix: the Occupational Folklife Project. Since 2010, the AFC has run the Occupational Folklife Project by annually funding original contemporary fieldwork on a diverse range of occupations across the United States. While the Community Collections Fellowship won’t carry the topical constraint of “occupation,” the Occupational Folklife Project has a few key features that inspired AFC’s development of the Community Collections Fellowship program: 1. Funding from the Library that supports contemporary cultural fieldwork, 2. Generating born-digital collections that help expand the diversity of the Library’s holdings, and 3. Sharing collections with the public via loc.gov.

Hairdresser works on his client with scissors and comb as she tilts her head forward.

Hairdresser Patrick Wellington, owner of Wellington Spa, working with client, Victoria Dillard, in his New York establishment. Photo by Candacy Taylor, from the Hairdresser and Beauty Shop Culture in America project. Library of Congress, AFC 2012/035: 00345.

To date, fieldworkers for the Occupational Folklife Project across the United States have recorded more than ,1000 audio and audiovisual oral history interviews with workers in a diverse range of trades, industries, crafts, and professions. These interviews feature workers discussing their current jobs and formative work experiences, reflecting on their training, on-the-job challenges and rewards, aspirations, and occupational communities.  In many cases, interviewees were asked to trace the career choices and educational paths that lead them to their present jobs and share their thoughts on the future of their professions.

The fieldwork has been funded by the Archie Green Fellowships, which supported the fieldwork as well as technical assistance with preliminary processing of most of these Occupational Folklife Project collections. Awardees agree that the resulting documentation will be deposited in the AFC archive and made available to the public. As with other materials deposited at the Library, rights and intellectual property over the collections remains with the depositor and the Library takes on archival stewardship and facilitation of access for users. Learn more about Archie Green and the fellowships program honoring his legacy here.

In addition to the online collection linked above, the AFC recently created a podcast series called America Works to share Occupational Folklife Project materials. Launched in September 2020, the series brings focus to individual workers by having each episode center on an engaging story found in one of the longer interviews. You can learn more about the series and hear episodes on the Library’s podcast page.

As noted above, the Community Collections Fellowships will invite people to conduct cultural documentation well beyond the scope of “occupation”—but it is informative to consider questions often underlying Occupational Folklife Project collections as inspiration for potential Community Collections Fellowship projects. What’s important to us when we identify as a group? What are shared skills or forms of communication that surround us? What events, activities, or other forms of culture help us make meaning of our daily experiences? These types of questions can drive projects narrowly focused on a single neighborhood or more generally on a geographically dispersed group that shares identity in language, food, dress, music, and other meaning-laden practices. Toward this end, the AFC intends the Community Collections Fellowship program to enable people from a wide range of communities to represent themselves—through their shared cultural heritage—to the wider public that the Library of Congress serves.

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