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The Field Schools for Cultural Documentation

What are the field schools? What subjects are taught?

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress sponsors an intensive, introductory field school on cultural documentation in partnership with an educational institution, cultural agency or community organization. Held on a near-annual basis in various parts of the United States, and on occasion in an overseas location, the field school provides hands-on training in ethnographic documentary techniques and archival processes needed for effective fieldwork in a range of humanities and social science disciplines. The field school ranges from one to three weeks in duration, usually over the summer months, and covers a range of topics that provide participants with a comprehensive introduction to cultural documentation in the field and sustaining cultural heritage assets. Topics covered include: research ethics, project planning, interviewing, metadata schema and cataloging, sound recording, documentary photography, writing fieldnotes, archival principles and delivering public presentations on research findings.

During the 1994 American Folklife Center's field school in San Luis, Colorado, Laura Hunt (left) and Beverly Morris (right) interview Corpus Gallegos on the vega, a cattle grazing area held in common by the community.
Laura Hunt (left) and Beverly Morris (right) interview Corpus Gallegos on the vega, a cattle grazing commons, San Luis, Colorado (1994)
Photo: Miguel Gandert.

The first half of a typical field school course is devoted to classroom lectures on a variety of topics and hands-on workshops in which participants learn how to use equipment and practice documentary techniques. In the second half of the course students apply documentation methods in actual research situations through team-based fieldwork. At the end of the course, research teams make public presentations on their research findings to commnity members and peers and submit their fully organized documentary materials (still image and audio files, fieldnotes, media logs, etc.) for archival deposit at the sponsoring institution.

The AFC and colleagues at the Sustainable Heritage NetworkExternal Link have produced several online teaching modules that address the subjects noted above and others such as planning for digitization and preservation of cultural heritage marterials. The online videos feature AFC and Library of Congress staff along with other cultural heritage professionals who provide detailed instructions through hands-on demonstrations.

Previous Field School Themes

The most recent field school was held in 2017 in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) as a joint initiative of the AFC, the University of Wyoming's American Studies Program and Utah State University's Folklore Program, in cooperation with the GTNP Cultural Resources Branch. The field school focused on the historical and contemporary practices of dude ranching in Jackson Hole, WY, in particular the occupational folklife and on-the-job experiences of the employees of the Triangle X Ranch,External Link the last operating dude ranch within the park.
[Read the article in Utah State Today:]

Fieldwork research themes explored in previous field schools include:
* the experiences of refugee populations from Southeast Asia and Africa in the Cache Valley, Utah;External Link
* social history and cultural change on the Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA;External Link "
* the history, cultural meanings, and uses of Provo Canyon, Utah; External Link
* maritime culture in transition in Crisfield, Maryland;
* water use and water rights in an agricultural community in southern Colorado;
* the social, economic and aesthetic dynamics of farmers markets in Colorado Springs, Colorado;
* the intersection of nature and culture along the Kokosing River, in Knox County, Ohio;
* the history, uses, and cultural meaning of Bloomington, Indiana's town square.

Team members Delia Alexander (left) and Tamara Hemmerlein examine recently-processed slides from their field research during the American Folklife Center’s June 2000 field school in Bloomington, Indiana.
Team members Delia Alexander (left) and Tamara Hemmerlein (r) examine recently-processed slides from their field research during the AFC field school in Bloomington, Indiana (2000).
Photo: David A. Taylor

Who are they for? Who does the teaching?

During the three week Library of Congress Field School, my classmates and I gained a solid foundation for ethnographic fieldwork. Each day I learned valuable new skills in using fieldwork equipment, in data collection, and in archival preservation. On a personal level, the Library of Congress Field School helped me to focus specifically on the story. What started out as a class which met a graduation requirement turned instead into a love of ethnography and of documenting the human experience.
Deanna Allred, 2015

Typically, twelve to fifteen participants are selected for each course. Most have little experience or previous training in cultural documentation, but do have a strong desire to obtain this training and a good potential to apply it in their future work. Past participants have included graduate and undergraduate students in folklore and related fields, school teachers, librarians, museum curators, arts and humanities council staff members, cultural activists, and oral historians.

Staff from the American Folklife Center always serve on the field school faculty. As needed, other instructors may include professional folklorists, university faculty, archivists, documentary photographers, and local community scholars.

In my first few months of graduate school, I have already drawn extensively on my field school experience. I frequently refer to things I learned both in the classroom and in the field as I contribute to seminar discussions, and I've used the training in documentation to pursue my own research for term papers and ongoing projects.
Lisa Powell, 2005

Marilyn Bañuelos (right) photographs Connie Romero as she interviews rancher Corpus Gallegos on the vega, during the 1994 American Folklife Center's field school.
Marilyn Bañuelos (right) photographs Connie Romero as she interviews rancher Corpus Gallegos on the vega, during the 1994 American Folklife Center's field school.
Photo: James Hardin.

What do participants say about their experiences?

As an independent consultant.. it legitimized my independent work and fueled a new pride in my goals, reinforcing the idea that there is great value in recording and interpreting, through a personal perspective, the human experience ...
Colette Lemmon, 2000

We received an apprenticeship along with our ethnographer's toolkit from the field school at Kenyon. In the field, we quickly put the tools you provided us to work. Our accelerated experience will make the project planning and implementation I do in the future seem like second nature.
Chris Grasso, 1999

Archivists, special collections librarians, and others with ethnographic collections would find it valuable to see the process of fieldwork through from start to finish...It makes for quality reference work when the librarian or archivist knows how the collection is created and organized...
Laura Hunt, 1994

Selena Lim, Gloria Paterson, and Bob Thometz
Selena Lim, Gloria Paterson, and Bob Thometz
(left to right), practice setting up and operating field documentation equipment during a workshop on
audio-recording techniques at the 2002 AFC
field school in Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio.
Photo: David A. Taylor.
At the American Folklife Center's June 2000 field school
At the American Folklife Center's June 2000 field school
in Bloomington, Indiana, team members Chris
Tobar-Dupres (right) and Ronald J. Stephens (center) interview Claude Rice about Bloomington's
courthouse square.
Photo: David A. Taylor.

I think fieldwork is stupendous. The greatest advantage of the field school was that it allowed me to systematically experience the entire process of a fieldwork project, from planning to presenting, with handy instructions and on-going feedback from the staff throughout ...
Kyun Yun, 2000

I see the field school model you have developed for documenting local culture as a foundation for how we might train and ultimately mobilize people around the state to more actively document their communities. At a minimum, I want to investigate how to incorporate this model into educators' professional development...
Trina Nelson Thomas, 2000


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   June 12, 2020
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