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About the American Family History and Folklife Online Resource

In 1976, the United States Congress passed the American Folklife Preservation Act, which established the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.  In passing this act, Congress defined “American folklife” as:

"the traditional, expressive, shared culture of various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, and regional. Expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms, such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, drama, ritual, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, and handicraft. Generally these expressions are learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are maintained or perpetuated without formal instruction or institutional direction."

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Jonathan Gold documents the Roberts Journal
At the 100th Reunion of the Roberts, Borders, Mauney, Howell, Briggs, and Related Families, Jonathan Gold shoots video footage of the John Roberts Journal, which includes detailed information on members of the family over several generations. Jean Humphrey, the family reunion committee's 2005 president, describes various aspects of the journal as Gold records. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2005.
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Interestingly, the first group cited by Congress as a location to seek folklife is the family.  Families maintain many traditions that we call folklife.  Your family may have passed down customs, such as a weekly game of charades, or an annual visit to a family member’s grave. You may have inherited naming traditions, so that the first boy in a given generation is named after his father or his paternal grandfather. You may have learned stories about a baby’s first words, or Grandpa’s first car. Your family may have formal rituals, such as the reciting of traditional prayers before a Sabbath meal. Finally, you may pass on family-based technical skills, such as how to tie a perfect fishing fly, or how to make Grandma’s famous peanut butter cookies.  These are just a few of the many types of folklife passed on in American families.

Family oral histories are also important in scholarship as a way for professional historians to supplement the written record with personal reminiscences.  Oral history was originally used in creating histories of important people and events.  It soon developed into a way for historians to document the perspectives of people whose opinions were unlikely to be recorded in the written record: the memories and experiences of everyday people.  Finally, oral history has developed into a tool for all of us, not just historians, to find out about aspects of the past that interest us.  Because we are often interested in our own families, interviews between family members have become increasingly popular in oral history projects.

People with a keen interest in their own family history may be attracted to a variety of primary sources that shed light on both history and folklife.  Many families have preserved written records such as letters, diaries, diplomas, and certificates, as well as photograph albums, painted portraits, and other graphic materials.  Some families preserve important artifacts, such as jewelry, locks of hair, wedding dresses, military uniforms, medals, and plaques.  All of these items may be of interest in their own right, may shed light on the family folklife of previous generations, and may also serve as topics of discussion in oral history interviews. 

Knowledge of family history is helpful to members of the family, old and young, in giving them a stronger sense of their personal heritage. There may also be other motivations for collecting family history: documenting a family's experience with a particular historical event, for example; or establishing patterns of genetic illness so that younger members of the family will have a resource to help them stay healthy. As you look at some of the resources provided in this online guide, you may find your ownunique reasons for documenting your family history and folklife.

Studying family folklife and history is not as easy as it might sound.  Families are living groups, and as such, they change and grow. Family folklife, which includes the stories and traditions passed on by related individuals, changes and grows with each new family member.  Family history and the perspective of each family member on that history are equally changeable. The folklore of children changes as they grow, and therefore their perception of their family's history and traditions changes as well. Young adults might feel that their parents are wrong about many things, but as they mature they might come to understand their own parents’ perspectives.  The researcher must therefore attempt to capture individual moments in the life of a living, changing entity.  This requires some flexibility on the part of the researcher, and a realization that family history and folklife is never set in stone.

Changes in technology may result inchanges in the way family history is documented: your great-grandfather may have recorded important family events in a ledger, or inserted birth and death announcements into a family bible, while your niece may record family history on a website or in a family blog.  When researching your family, you may want to think about the advantages and disadvantages of each generation’s methods — for example, great-grandpa’s ledger may be harder to access than your niece’s blog, especially if you’re not in the same location as the ledger’s current custodian.  On the other hand, the ledger is more likely than the blog to survive another hundred years.  While you may want to preserve or restore the ledger, you’ll also want to think of ways to make the blog or Web site more permanent. 

Another important thing to keep in mind when doing a family history or folklife project is that most families have a range of opinions on every topic.  For example, in researching the "Roberts, Borders, Mauney, Howell, Briggs and related families" (a large extended family that holds an annual reunion in North Carolina), a team of researchers from the American Folklife Center learned that not all members of the family agreed on the family’s origins.  While most family members considered themselves descended from seven sisters who were all the daughters of a single, enslaved African woman, some branches of the family held the belief that their ancestors had never been enslaved at all. Researchers must try to document the family’s history impartially, which may require delicate negotiations. Remember above all to be respectful of everyone’s position.

A typical family history or folklife project consists of several steps.  Preliminary research will help to establish the context of your project and familiarize you with what is already known about the family you are researching.  Planning the project involves making decisions about which family members to consult, when to approach them, what questions to ask, what equipment to use, and what to do with the results of your research.  Collecting the documents, images, and artifacts held by various family members, preserving them, and documenting them through photography, scanning, or transcribing, is likely to be part of your project.  Most importantly, most family folklife and oral history projects will entail interviewing members of the family, and recording those interviews for the use of current and future family members.

The two resource lists, "Family Folklife Documentation: Examples from Online American Folklife Center Collections" and "Resources for Family Folklife and History," will provide both practical advice and examples of family history and folklife research. The first is a list of online collections at the American Folklife Center that contain a significant proportion of material relating to families. The second is a list of resources, both at the Library of Congress and elsewhere, for the study of folklife and oral history in a family context.  

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The Librarian of Congress, James Billington, talks with Vivian Hewitt at the Roberts/Mauney reunion
Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington dined with Vivian Hewitt, a member of the Roberts, Borders, Mauney, Howell, Briggs and related families. Mrs. Hewitt is a renowned special collections librarian who owns a world-class collection of African American art. She is a longtime acquaintance of the Billingtons. Photo by Steve Winick, 2005.
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In 2005, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, took a team of ethnographers from the American Folklife Center to Charlotte, North Carolina to document the 100th reunion of an African American Family Reunion. "The Roberts, Borders, Mauney, Howell, Briggs and Related Families Reunion," was started in 1906 by former slaves Wesley Mauney, John Wesley Roberts, and Eli Borders Roberts. This event has been celebrated every year since then. After the American Folklife Center documented this remarkable event, conducting audiotaped and videotaped interviews with members of the various family branches, the Librarian and the Director of the American Folklife Center, Peggy Bulger, decided to develop a list of resources that would help Americans document their own families. This became the American Family History and Folklife Online Resource.

 

 

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   May 15, 2015
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