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Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis
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About the Symposium

In December 2000, the American Folklife Center and the American Folklore Society convened 100 experts to discuss the issues of access, preservation, and intellectual property rights of endangered folklore and ethnographic audio collections.  The participants sought to develop solutions to the many challenges facing recorded-sound collections across the nation. 

The two-day invitational symposium was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and The GRAMMY Foundation. It brought together folklorists, preservation specialists, intellectual property lawyers, media and technology specialists, and librarians and archivists.  This diverse group of professionals worked together to produce action plans, share resources, and develop guidelines, and many agreed to work on follow-up activities. 

Recording engineer John Howell examines a wax cylinder recording for damage.
Recording engineer John Howell examines a wax cylinder recording
for damage.
Photo by James Hardin,
Library of Congress.

National Survey

In preparation for the symposium, the American Folklife Center conducted a survey to assess the crisis level of the nation's ethnographic audio collections. The survey results were used in the discussions at the symposim.

The survey was sent to all American Folklore Society and Society for Ethnomusicology members, as well as to a list of known museums, historical societies, universities and colleges, state arts agencies, and private individuals with collections. 

The Center surveyed only collections of original audio recordings, not commercial recordings or duplicates.  We did not include video formats or photos.  A summary of the survey findings are appended to the report: Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis External link available on the CLIR Web site.


Per Host (center) tape recording a Chaco Indian flutist at the home of Gajego (left), a Chaco medicine man, for the Archive of Folk Culture, 1949.
Per Host (center) tape recording a Chaco Indian flutist at the home of Gajego (left), a Chaco medicine man, for the Archive of Folk Culture, 1949.

Why is Heritage Preservation Important?

As Art Silverman, producer of Lost and Found Sound for National Public Radio and one of our survey respondents said, "You never know how the future will see the past and the potential for regret is enormous" when it comes to preserving our nation's heritage of recorded sound. 

In 1890, Jesse Walter Fewkes made the first documentary field recordings, of Passamaquoddy Indians in Maine.  Fewkes recognized that the recently invented Edison wax cylinder recording machine (1877) would allow anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, and others to capture the songs and stories of the people they interviewed for future generations.  Thus began a century of documentary activity that has resulted in both a bonanza of recorded sound heritage and the challenge that we have before us today: how to keep that documentation safe, audible, and available for many more years to come.

Ethnographer Charles L. Todd records Mr. and Mrs. Frank Pipkin, 1941. Photo by Robert Hemmig.
Ethnographer Charles L. Todd records Mr. and Mrs. Frank Pipkin, 1941. Photo by Robert Hemmig.

The crisis mentioned in the symposium title derives from a growing perception among folklorists, archivists, and others that the various media used for field documentation are in serious danger of deterioration due to a variety of reasons.  Even DAT recordings made as recently as five years ago are at risk. 

With the Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis Symposium, and the Save Our Sounds preservation project, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, the American Folklife Center has launched a major effort to preserve the collections in the Archive of Folk Culture for future generations, and to bring national attention to the "crisis" in the preservation of our recorded-sound heritage.


 

 

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   September 30, 2014
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