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American Folklife Center: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

"" Foreword

Bessie Collias's hands  pointing to a join in the lace of a crocheted tablecloth
Bessie Collias demonstrates a join in the lace of a crocheted tablecloth at St. Nicholas Church. Chicago, Illinois, April 23, 1977. (Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas)

The collections in the American Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture contain one-of-a-kind documentation of traditional cultural expressions that date from the end of the nineteenth century through the dawn of the twenty-first. Today there are more than three million items of ethnographic documentation in the archive, a treasure trove that represents over a hundred years of fieldwork. These collections preserve for future researchers a record of the folklife, cultural expressions, traditional arts, and oral histories of Americans and of our global neighbors. Moreover the far-ranging work of building the Folk Archive is ongoing. The American Folklife Center is actively collecting and documenting the traditional culture of the new millennium.

The American Folklife Center, created by Congress in 1976 to "preserve and present American folklife" is proud to accept this mandate to collect, safeguard, and provide access to the unparalleled collections of the Archive of Folk Culture. The archive is an extraordinary resource for primary research on America's shared community-based heritage, innumerable personal histories, and multicultural roots. Rich and diverse, its collections provide a lasting record of American social and cultural life, a record that is truly of, by, and for the people.

Since the establishment of the Archive of American Folk-Song in 1928, the collections have grown in content and scope to include the vital documentation of traditions and culture from every corner of the nation. This list is long and includes cowboy poets, Cherokee Indian basket-makers, Cajun fiddlers, Omaha Sioux drummers, Appalachian ballad singers, Mississippi Delta bluesmen, Adirondack storytellers, Texas barbecue masters, Italian American wine-makers, Palestinian American embroiderers, Alaskan sled-dog mushers, and Maine boat builders. The collections encompass and define the grassrppts traditions of American life. In addition, the American Folklife Center collects materials from across the globe: documention of traditional music and pageantry from China; everyday life, work, and celebration in Eastern Europe; music and other traditional expressions from Central America, Papua New Guinea, and Africa.

As the Library of Congress is the repository for the world's collective knowledge and achievement, so the American Folklife Center is the repository for the world's folklore, traditional wisdom, and cultural heritage. During the opening years of the twenty-first century, the archive increased its holdings by over twenty-five percent, and many large collections are augmented each year by additional donations. The National Council for the Traditional Arts Collection will provide an ongoing record of the outstanding folk artists in our nation. The International Storytelling Collection contains documentation of thousands of tale-tellers and folk narrators. And the Veterans History Project is the most comprehensive national oral history effort since the years of the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s — collecting the personal stories of America's living war veterans.

This illustrated guide to the American Folklife Center provides an introduction to a research collection that allows us to understand and embrace our American history and heritage, just as it offers the opportunity for us to study and better understand the many cultures of our globally linked, multicultural world. A sampling of audio recordings from the Archive of Folk Culture is provided in an accmpanying compact disc.

A few thanks are in order. The creation of this American Folklife Center guide as an important addition to the Library's series of illustrated guides was encouraged and supported by former Associate Librarian of Congress Winston Tabb. James Hardin, writer and editor of the American Folklife Center, took on the job of planning, researching, writing, and coordinating the effort to make this publication a reality. Working with Director of Publishing Ralph Eubanks and editor Evelyn Sinclair of the Library of Congress Publishing Office, Jim has created a wonderful guide to a complex ethnographic collection. And finally, to all of the staff at the American Folklife Center who assisted in choosing photos, writing captions, and selecting recorded sound for the CD, a hearty thanks.

Peggy A. Bulger, Director
American Folklife Center

Robert Winslow Gordon with sound recording equipment
Robert Winslow Gordon, first head of the Archive of American Folk-Song, at the Library of Congress, with part of the cylinder collection and recording machinery, about 1930.
(Library of Congress photo)

Frances Densmore plays a recording for the Chief of the Blackfoot tribe
Frances Densmore with the Chief of the Blackfoot Tribe, who listens to a cylinder recording and translates the song into sign language, Washington, D.C., early 1900s.
(Library of Congress photo)

The invention of the Edison cylinder recording machine in 1877 enabled folklorists and other ethnographers to make sound recordings in field settings that could be analyzed and studied carefully in another location at a later time. Robert Gordon came to the Library in 1928 to take charge of the newly created Archive of American Folk-Song, bringing with him his dream of collecting "all American folk-song." Frances Densmore was a prolific collector of American Indian music who made more than twenty-five hundred wax-cylinder recordings with members of forty tribes between 1907 and the early 1940s. Her extensive collection is part of the Archive of Folk Culture.

The Library of Congress » American Folklife Center
( October 29, 2010 )
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