The Changing Field of Folklife cover

The Changing Field of Folklife

By ,

Changes in technology have facilitated global access to the Library’s folklife collections.
(The following is an article by Stephen Winick from the March/April 2016 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

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The Changing Field of Folklife

Folk Changes

This year, the Library’s American Folklife Center turns 40.

During that time, the world has changed in numerous ways—some small and some sweeping. Many changes have been in response to new technologies, including changes in the field of folklife.

The American Folklife Center continues to acquire collections in every conceivable format, including manuscripts, photographs, and sound and video recordings.

These include collections by folklorist Alan Lomax, documentary photographers Robert Corwin and Bruce Jackson and musicians Jean Ritchie, John Cohen and David Bromberg.

Jean Ritchie

George Pickow, Jean Ritchie and George Pickow Collection, American Folklife Center.

Jean Ritchie

Folksinger and songwriter Jean Ritchie plays the dulcimer.

Digital Collections

The center also maintains older collections, including wax-cylinder recordings dating back to 1890.

An increasing number of American Folklife Center collections—now numbering about 6 million items—have been digitized and made available online, and many collections now come to the center “born digital”—never having existed in analog (physical) form.

The web itself has a culture of its own with its own vocabulary, and that, too, is being documented by the center.

In the Beginning

The American Folklife Center was established by Public Law 94-201, the American Folklife Preservation Act, which was passed by the 94th Congress and signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford on Jan. 2, 1976.

The legislation placed the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress, making it a national center for folklife documentation and research.

At the time, the nation was celebrating its bicentennial. People were thinking about the founding of the United States and what it meant to be American.

Many looked to their roots in the old world and celebrated the folk customs their ancestors brought with them.

Saving the Stories

Everett Lilly is interviewed by Mary Hufford. Terry Eiler, 1996. Coal River Folklife Collection, American Folklife Center.

Saving the Stories

Folklife programs that brought traditional culture to general audiences thrived, including museum exhibits, films and public performances. Folklorists strengthened their advocacy for folklife by offering grants, organizing apprenticeships, encouraging documentation and providing access to archival collections.

Behind the Scenes

The center’s activities were (and remain) part of this movement.

For 40 years, the American Folklife Center has had a leadership role, working closely with a network of colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Park Service and other agencies, as well as state folklore programs, to preserve, present and publish folklife resources.

The center has worked behind the scenes on folklife programming, research and policy on national and international levels. Changing technologies affect all of these activities, from preserving recordings to protecting intellectual property rights.

Gone Digital

The center’s flagship publication, for example, has transitioned from a paper newsletter to a blog.

Similarly, its series of free concerts, lectures and symposia, which go back to 1976, still go on today—but now the center can present them as videos online.

Congress placed the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, partly because the Library already had an archive of folk culture, founded in 1928.

The folk culture collections had largely been built through fieldwork— recordings made by Library employees and other government organizations.

In the Field

These ranged from Spanish-language hymns of New Mexico and Finnish runic songs in California to the personal narratives of former slaves.

They also included materials collected by folk legend Pete Seeger, and even a few Seeger performances.

The newly hired American Folklife Center staff renewed the Library’s involvement in fieldwork in the 1970s, embarking on a series of field surveys.

Teams of fieldworkers interviewed people about their traditions on audio and video recordings, and also photographed and shot video of performances, rituals, and daily life.

Reaching Milestones

The technology on which their fieldwork was recorded and preserved had changed, but the goal of capturing American life—from cattle ranches in Nevada to the streets of Chicago and the factories of Paterson, New Jersey—had remained the same.

Today, an important goal is increasing the number of these collections accessible online.

The center reached a milestone with the first installment of an online presentation of the Alan Lomax Collection.

Oral History

Folk legend Pete Seeger sings and plays banjo. Robert Corwin, 1997. Robert Corwin Collection, American Folklife Center.

Oral History

The center has also been preserving the memories of the nation’s armed forces since Congress asked the Library of Congress to launch the Veterans History Project in 2000.

Remembering the Past

Since then, the center has collected 100,000 interviews of servicemen and women dating back to World War I.

Many of these are available online.Over 40 years, oral history has grown in the consciousness of the public and the priorities of the Library.

The folk archive collected oral histories before the founding of the American Folklife Center, including interviews about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

These inspired an effort to collect similar stories after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Going Online

Congress also charged the center to participate in the Civil Rights History Project, collecting interviews with leaders of the civil rights movement and making them available online.

The center is also a major partner in the StoryCorps project, which recently launched an app so that anyone around the globe can conduct an oral history interview and share it.

Changes in technology, especially the Internet, have greatly increased public access to the Library’s collections.

The center was quick to seize this opportunity, putting many of its legacy and brand-new collections online in the early days of the web.


Digitizing continues to this day, with more collections going online all the time.

While digitizing physical collections is a priority, contemporary collections are increasingly born digital—arriving in the form of digital files.

Such collections require entirely different procedures to preserve them and make them accessible to researchers.

The center’s staff includes specialists trained to handle digital objects.

Preserving Folklife

Marinera Viva presents dances of Peru in a 2015 “Homegrown” performance at the Library sponsored by the American Folklife Center. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Preserving Folklife

It is also increasingly clear to folklorists that online communities are creating digital culture—much of which is, in itself, folklife. The center’s staff is engaged in critical thinking about how to capture and preserve such digital folklife.

Better Access

Changes in technology have also made it easier for the public to interact with the center.

Its concerts, lectures and symposia are accessible online as webcasts. Folklife events are publicized through social media and email.

The public can sign up for theAmerican Folklife Center RSS and email list, “like” its Facebook page and subscribe to the blog “Folklife Today,” all by visiting the center’s homepage.

The staff of the American Folklife Center has kept up with 40 years of change in both the field of folklife and the library world. They’re looking forward to the challenge of keeping up with the next 40 as well.

Library of Congress