Five Questions with John Fenn, Head, Research and Programs, American Folklife Center

This post is written by John Fenn of the Library of Congress.

John Fenn

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress.

As the Head of Research and Programs at the American Folklife Center (AFC), I’m responsible for shepherding a wide range of public programming and researcher support. The staff I work with coordinate and produce all of the Homegrown concerts and Botkin lectures that AFC hosts, as well as other events such as film screenings, roundtable discussions, or symposia. All of our events speak to the diverse array of cultural heritage present in our collections, and in most cases these events help to build our collections through the documentation we produce. On the researcher support side of our work, AFC staff assist users of the collections by answering reference questions, working directly with researchers, and hosting group visits by students, artists, or other community-based organizations. These visits tend to involve an overview and orientation to AFC resources as well as exploration of collection materials relevant to the interests of the group.

What is your favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

I have run into some wonderful field recordings in the California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties collection. This amazing collection was created by an equally amazing field worker, Sidney Robertson Cowell, during the New Deal. She set out to document the rich diversity of musical traditions present in northern California, gathering recordings in 12 languages from over 180 musicians. In addition to the recordings, she and her team took photos of all the musicians and made detailed drawings of instruments—many of which represent musical heritage that came to the area with immigrant communities. If I had to choose a favorite item, I’d say it’s a recording of George Vinton Graham singing “Barbara Allen.”

The field notes associated with this recording are quite funny, noting that “Mr. Graham’s gravity was disturbed by the antics of the photographer.” I can only wonder what they were up to!

Share a time when an item from the Library’s collections sparked your curiosity.

One of the first collections I started digging into when I started this job was the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection . This was the first folklife survey that AFC did, with most of the fieldwork happening in 1977. There are fabulous photographs in this collection, and one of them from a series of images depicting “Jazz Alley”—a popular informal gathering spot for an African American community—made me curious about the ways that art, identity, and place intersect in both momentary and long-lasting manners.

Why is it important for teachers to incorporate folklife resources in their classroom activities?

Folklife resources concretely demonstrate the value of diversity, in all meanings of the word. The collections we take care of at the AFC contain a broad array of knowledge and approaches to meaning-making that are of great value to classrooms in two ways. First, our materials can help illustrate the cultural history of a place that members of a classroom may call home. We have collections from all 50 states, as well as U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Second, our collections can introduce students to the ways things are done in other places, the ways people sing songs, tell stories, make food, or create meaning in general — we have material representing folklife in about 140 countries!

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the Library?

I think it’s important for teachers to know that folklife is not just about the past. While we do have cultural documentation in our collections dating from the 1890s, all of our materials have important and meaningful resonance with cultural life today. Folklorists like to understand “tradition” as comprising both continuity and change. “Continuity” represents connection to the past, to the community members and cultural practices that have come before. And “change” represents the dynamic ways in which community members have adapted cultural practices to the world around them.

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