Sunday, June 27, 2010

"The American Folklife Center"

I’m Steve Ember. And I’m Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

We continue our series of reports about efforts to keep alive some traditional ways of doing things. Today we tell about preserving stories, experiences and beliefs of everyday people.


In the largest library in the world is a collection of voices. Voices of people telling the stories about important events in their lives. Singing songs they sang as children. Explaining the ceremonies and celebrations of their families and communities. This unusual collection is in the American Folklife Center, which is part of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C

The Folklife Center was created to collect and preserve the traditional knowledge that is passed on to others by spoken word and custom. The folklife collections include the folklore, cultural activities, traditional arts and personal histories of everyday people from the end of the 19th century to the present.

Peggy Bulger is the director of the American Folklife Center. She says the songs people sing, the stories they tell, the things they make are an important part of history. So the Folklife Center contains a historical record of a people told in their own voices, not described by political leaders, professors or writers.

In 1976, the United States Congress passed a law that created the American Folklife Center to preserve and present the history of American folklife. The materials in the Center are available to researchers at the Library of Congress and at the library’s Web site. It also provides recordings, live performances, exhibits and publications. And it trains people to do the collecting

More than four million objects are now in the collections of the American Folklife Center. Most of them are in the biggest and oldest part of the Center, which is the Archive of Folk Culture. It was established at the Library of Congress almost 80 years ago and was known for years as the Archive of American Folk Song.


In 1928, the head of the Library of Congress decided that the library should collect American folk songs sung by people as they worked and played. Robert Gordon was chosen to lead this project. He had already decided his goal in life was to collect every American folk song. He traveled around the country, recording people in their homes or communities. The recordings were made on wax cylinders, a device that Thomas Edison invented in 1877.

When John and Alan Lomax took over the job in 1932, they began collecting more than music and song. They recorded and documented personal histories. These included what people cooked, the crafts they made, and the jokes and stories passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. This is the kind of information about everyday life that often disappears through the years

Peggy Bulger says experts in folklore, music, or culture travel around the country and the world to record folklife. They work either as private individuals or for the Library of Congress or other federal and state agencies. Many of them use equipment lent to them by the Library of Congress. In return, the collectors give their sound and video recordings, research notes, papers, and photographs to the library’s collection

Through the years, the folklife collections have grown to include traditions and culture from every area of the United States. You can find almost anything in the collections, including Native American song and dance music, ancient English story songs and cowboy poetry. You can listen to the memories of ex-slaves, experiences of Italian-American wine makers and memories of boat makers in the state of Maine


Peggy Bulger says the materials in the Archive of Folk Culture are from almost every place in the world. People who come from other countries to settle in the United States bring their folklore with them. So the folklore and traditions of the immigrants become part of the collections – including those from Sudan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bosnia and Latin America. Ms. Bulger says the collections document the culture of the world as it exists today in the United States

The Archive of Folk Culture continues to grow. Individuals who have made a career of collecting folklore material want their collections to go to the Library of Congress when they retire. They want the materials to be preserved and made available to researchers in the future. For example, Ms. Bulger says that next year a folklorist who documented women’s traditions in Afghanistan in the 1960s is giving his collection to the Folklife Center.

Peggy Bulger is excited about helping native groups record and save their own traditions and folklore. Two members of the Masai tribe of Kenya will spend a week getting training at the Folklife Center. Ms. Bulger says the Masai do not want outsiders coming in to document their sacred ceremonies and songs. The Masai want to learn how to record and film themselves so they can be sure their traditions survive for future generations. And they want to have control over the use of the recordings, keeping ceremonial traditions secret, but making other information available to outsiders.


Bob Patrick is head of the Veterans History Project. The idea for the project began when United States Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin was at a family gathering. His father and his uncle started talking about their experiences in war. Representative Kind decided to make a video recording of them telling their stories to save for his children when they were older. He decided then that the memories of all men and women who served in wars are important to record and preserve.

In the year 2000, Representative Kind introduced a bill in Congress to establish the Veterans History Project. The bill passed with no opposition and was signed into law. The main purpose of the project is to collect and preserve the remembrances of people who served in all wars.

Bob Patrick says the project now has more than 50,000 individual stories, including recordings or videos of veterans telling their stories about war. The collections also include photographs, letters, and other personal materials. All the materials are kept in the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. Some of them are available through the Web site.

Mr. Patrick says many organizations and individuals volunteer to make the recordings. Retirement communities, veterans’ organizations, historical societies, libraries, and high school and college students are part of the project. The most important volunteers are family members and friends who talk to the veterans about their lives and record their memories. Mr. Patrick says that today’s technology makes that easy to do. The Veterans History project Web site has suggestions to help people who do the recordings.


Most new recordings in the American Folklife Center are in digital form, especially those made for the Veterans History Project and StoryCorps. People being recorded now are asked to give permission for their information to be shared with others through the World Wide Web at Peggy Bulger hopes that in the future more older materials will be available to researchers around the world.

Ms. Bulger says efforts by the Library of Congress to record and preserve dances, songs and stories help support traditional cultures. These efforts help young people realize the knowledge of older people is valuable. Every year, she says, more people recognize that folklife is an important part of the historical record.

Peggy Bulger says the recordings in the Archive of Folk Culture prove that voices are very powerful. Listening to someone talk about his or her life gives you so much more information, she says, than just reading about it. The growing collections of voices that are part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress are a lasting record of social and cultural life. They are a record that is truly of, by and for the people.


This program was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Barbara Klein.

And I’m Steve Ember. You can find out more about the American Folklife Center at our web site, Listen again next month to EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English for another program about keeping traditions alive.

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