The Field Schools for Cultural Documentation
What are the field schools? What subjects are taught?
Every year, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
sponsors an intensive, introductory field school on cultural
documentation in partnership with an educational institution. Held
in various parts of the United States, the field school provides
hands-on training in ethnographic documentary techniques and archival processes needed
for effective fieldwork concerning folklore and related fields.
The field school is typically three weeks in duration, held over
the summer months, and covers a variety of topics that provide participants
with a basic introduction to cultural documentation in the field.
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.
Photo: Miguel Gandert.
The first half of a typical field school course is devoted to classroom lectures on
a variety of topics and workshops about documentation equipment
and related techniques. The second half of the course is devoted
to the application of documentation methods through team-based fieldwork.
At the end of the course, research teams make public presentations
on their research findings and submit their fully organized documentary
materials (photographs, audiotapes, fieldnotes, tape and photo logs,
etc.) for archival deposit at the sponsoring institution.
The AFC and colleagues at the Sustainable Heritage Network have produced several online teaching modules that address these subjects and others, such as the basics of digitization planning and preservation techniques. The online videos feature AFC and Library of Congress staff, along with other cultural heritage professionals, providing explanations and hands-on demonstrations.
Fieldwork research themes explored in previous field schools include:
the experiences of refugee populations from Southeast Asia and Africa in the Cache Valley, Utah; social history and cultural change on the Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA; the history, cultural meanings, and uses of Provo
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;
and 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.
Photo: David A. Taylor.
Who are they for? Who does the teaching?
"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, Field School participant,
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.
Field school instructors usually include professional folklorists,
archivists, documentary photographers, and local community scholars;
members of the American Folklife Center's staff always serve on
"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
Lisa Powell, Field School participant,
When and where is the next 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.
The 2017 field school will be held July 29 -August 12, 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 Grand Teton National Park's Cultural Resources Branch. The field school will focus on the traditions 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, the last operating dude ranch within the park.
What do participants say about
"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
Selena Lim, Gloria Paterson, and
(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
in Bloomington, Indiana, team members Chris
Tobar-Dupres (right) and Ronald J. Stephens (center) interview
Claude Rice about Bloomington's
Photo: David A. Taylor.
"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
"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