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American Folklife Center: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

 A National Project with Many Workers

John A. Lomax shakes hands with with  Rich Brown
John A. Lomax (left) and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Mrs. Julia Killingsworth, near Sumterville, Alabama, October, 1940.
(Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress)

John A. Lomax was head of the Archive of American Folk-Song (1932 – 42) but spent most of his time away from Washington, often in the field. Sumter County, Alabama, which lies along the southwest border of the state, proved to be one of Lomax's most fertile collecting locations. During his trip there, October – November 1940, accompanied by his wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax and Mrs. Ruby Pickens Tartt of the Alabama Federal Writer's Project, Lomax recorded Rich Brown singing eleven songs, many of them spirituals.

In 1928, when the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, invited Robert W. Gordon to become "specialist and consultant in the field of Folk Song and Literature," Gordon had already conceived and launched his lifetime mission to collect the entire body of American folk music. He called it a "national project with many workers." Gordon attended Harvard University between 1906 and 1917, and then left in order to devote all his free time to this collecting enterprise. Supporting himself through teaching, writing, and the occasional grant, Gordon traveled from the waterfronts of Oakland and San Francisco, California, to Asheville, North Carolina, and Darien, Georgia, collecting and recording folksongs with his Edison wax-cylinder machine. He wrote a monthly column in Adventure magazine, "Old Songs That Men Have Sung," asking readers to send in copies of all the folksongs they could remember. And he contacted Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division at the Library of Congress, to discuss his dream and seek institutional support.

Engel believed that American grassroots traditions should be represented in the national library, and wrote in The Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for 1928:

There is a pressing need for the formation of a great centralized collection of American folk-songs. The logical place for such a collection is the national library of the United States. This collection should comprise all the poems and melodies that have sprung from our soil or have been transplanted here, and have been handed down, often with manifold changes, from generation to generation as a precious possession of our folk.

Countless individuals, numerous walks of life, several races have contributed to this treasure of songs and ballads. It is richer than that of any other country. Too much of it has remained scattered or unrecorded. The preservation of this material in the remote haunts where it still flourishes is endangered by the spread of the radio and phonograph, which are diverting the attention of the people from their old heritage and are making them less dependent on it.

Alan Lomax playing a guitar
Alan Lomax with Guitar in a publicity photo, 1940.
(American Folklife Center)

Alan Lomax is best known as a folksong collector, but during his tenure at the Library of Congress he also worked the lecture circuit, gave concerts, and made recordings. This is a publicity photo for his work with the Columbia Lecture Bureau in 1940. His association with the bureau probably derived from his radio series Columbia's School of the Air. The Lecture Bureau said of Alan Lomax, "With his records and his guitar he brings his listeners closer to America, the real America . . . close to the singing country that he believes America to be."

The Library of Congress is vitally interested in the collecting of these folk verses and folk melodies. The collecting must be done in a scholarly manner and the collection, safeguarded against improper use, should be made freely accessible to scholars.

Robert Gordon was not the first to use the latest technology to document our national traditional culture, nor Carl Engel the first to acknowledge its importance. Thomas A. Edison invented the wax-cylinder recording machine in 1877, and it became available commercially about 1888. The machine facilitated documentary work by many private individuals, as well as those employed by government agencies and public museums. These ethnographers shared a common vision. They believed that the history of the American nation ought to include the many voices of its diverse population, a notion that later figured in the creation of the American Folklife Center. They believed that sound — both song and spoken word — was a vital part of the historical, cultural record.

Harvard anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes was the first to use the Edison cylinder machine for ethnographic research. Field recordings made on wax cylinders could be brought back to a studio for study, and Fewkes used Edison’s machine in Maine, in 1890, to record the songs and stories of Passamaquoddy Indians. These wax cylinder recordings, the first ethnographic recordings extant, are in the collections of the Archive of Folk Culture. Between 1907 and the early 1940s, Frances Densmore collected more than twenty-five hundred recordings from members of forty tribes. She was one of a number of pioneering women in the field of ethnographic documentation (including Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Helen Heffron Roberts, and Laura Bolton) whose collections are now in the Archive of Folk Culture.

Herbert Halpert in front of a truck
Folklorist Herbert Halpert posed by the old ambulance he outfitted as a "sound wagon," using an acetate-disc recorder borrowed from the Archive of American Folk-Song. Salotillo, Mississippi, 1939.
(Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Herbert Halpert was one of the many folklorists of his generation to profit from the Library of Congress's Equipment Loan Program. Halpert's work was also supported through contracts with the Library and other federal agencies, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. He traveled throughout the southern United States, amassing more than four hundred discs of songs and music.

""The Archive of Folk Culture

When the Archive of American Folk-Song was first established in the Music Division, it was funded from private sources. Periodic disagreements over his methods erupted between Robert Gordon and Library of Congress officials during his tenure as head, and the private money that Carl Engel had secured to fund Gordon’s position eventually came to an end. But the idea of a national folk archive had taken root, and it was revived when John A. Lomax came to the Library in 1932. Lomax too was devoted to collecting American folksong, and the decade-long association of John A. Lomax and his son, Alan, with the Library of Congress established the documentation of traditional culture as an important and integral activity of the institution.

Alan Lomax became the Folk Archive’s first federally funded staff member in 1936, and served as “assistant in charge.” He made collecting expeditions for the Library throughout the South, in the Midwest, and in New England; produced a seminal series of documentary folk music albums entitled Folk Music of the United States; conducted interviews with performers, such as Jelly Roll Morton; and, over the years, introduced audiences in Washington, D.C., and radio listeners nationwide to an array of traditional artists.

An arrangement with the Library initiated by John A. Lomax, wherein he would “give to the Library, in return for the use of a recording machine, any records that he might obtain with it” (Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1933), facilitated his own collecting activities and launched a documentary equipment-loan program that has lasted for seventy years. Using successive types of equipment from the Library, as recording technologies evolved from cylinder to disc to tape, collectors such as Vance Randolph, Charles Todd, Robert Sonkin, Eloise Hubbard Linscott, Zora Neale Hurston, Herbert Halpert,William Fenton, Melville Herskovits, Helen Hartness Flanders, Austin Fife, and many others were able to pursue their personal collecting activities and, at the same time, contribute to the national collection.

Heads of the
Archive of Folk Culture

Robert W. Gordon (1928 – 32)

John A Lomax (1933 – 42, keeping the title "honorary curator" until his death in 1948)

Alan Lomax (1937 – 42 with the title "assistant in charge")

Benjamin A. Botkin (1942 – 45)

Duncan Emrich (1945 – 55, with the title "chief of the Folklore Section")

Rae Korson (1956 – 69)

Alan Jabbour (1969 – 74)

Joseph C. Hickerson (1974 – 88)

Alan Jabbour (1988 – 99, as director of the American Folklife Center)

Peggy Bulger (1999 – 2002, as director of the American Folklife Center)

Michael Taft (2002 – 2012 )

Nicole Saylor (2012 – )

The strategy of lending equipment and recording supplies to a network of regional collectors was enormously productive, both in building the collection and in creating a community of folklorists with ties to the Library.

The desire to distribute the Folk Archive’s holdings for public and educational uses led to the creation of the Library’s Recording Laboratory, which produced the first releases in the Folk Music of the United States series in 1942. In the 1950s, the early 78-rpm albums were converted to 33-rpm, and new LP releases appeared through the early 1980s. As new technologies developed for making field recordings — wax cylinder, disc, wire, tape, and so forth — the laboratory staff acquired machines, developed expertise, and initiated publishing projects to make available to the public traditional music that was thought at the time to have no commercial value. It was also necessary for the laboratory to buy and maintain recording equipment associated with each succeeding technology. In the 1990s, CD versions of many of these early recordings, as well as new releases from the world music collections, were produced and distributed through cooperative agreements with commercial recording companies.

The expertise developed by the Recording Laboratory, the equipment-loan program, and the growing reputation of the Library of Congress as a repository for ethnographic documentation were appealing to folklorists and cultural documentarians working in this country and in foreign lands as well. Library of Congress collections are international in scope, and Library officials supported an international acquisition policy for the Folk Archive. A recording trip to the Bahamas that Alan Lomax made in 1935, during his tenure at the Library, may have been the first instance of seeking folklife materials from outside the United States. The Folk Archive now holds material from nearly every region in the world.

Henrietta Yurchenco with an unidentified woman
Henrietta Yurchenco (right) and an unidentified woman, near Zion Methodist Church, St. John's Island, South Carolina. March 1970.
(Henrietta Yurchenco Collection. Photo by David Lewiston)

Henrietta Yurchenco began doing fieldwork in 1942 in Mexico and Guatemala, where she recorded traditional music in Indian communities. On a 1970 visit to St. John's Island, South Carolina, Professor Yurchenco brought some of her undergraduate students from the City College of New York to help record music during spring recess. There, the students experienced first-hand the civil rights movement as it was taking place at a church that was spearheading a drive to register black voters. The Reverend Goodwin preached an impassioned Easter Sunday sermon on civil rights at Zion Methodist Church that weekend.

During the 1940s and 1950s, for example, Arthur S. Alberts made remarkable recordings of West African music, from a dozen ethnic groups and six different colonial territories, all of which he contributed to the Library of Congress during the tenure of archive head Duncan Emrich. When portions of this collection were made available commercially, they did much to counter stereotypical notions about the “Dark Continent” by presenting examples of authentic cultural expressions. During her long career, anthropologist Henrietta Yurchenco has documented the traditions of African Americans on John’s Island, South Carolina, and in Puerto Rico. She has also conducted fieldwork in Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, Morocco, and Ireland. Like many such collectors of international folklife materials, Yurchenco has made periodic donations to the Library of Congress.

The Folk Archive also received an infusion of material when John A. Lomax, Benjamin A. Botkin (who followed Alan Lomax as head of the archive), and others associated with the Folk Archive participated in New Deal-era programs such as the Federal Writers’ Project. During the 1930s, hundreds of federal workers were employed in cultural projects around the country, including the Ex-Slave Narrative Project and the California Folk Music Project. When the Work Projects Administration (WPA) offices finally closed down, in response to a shifting of emphasis to national defense as the United States entered the Second World War, Library of Congress officials facilitated the transfer of cultural materials collected by its various agencies to the Library.

Thus, by the 1940s, the Archive of American Folk-Song had expanded its documentary scope to include folklore, verbal arts, and oral history. In addition to his work as “assistant in charge” at the archive, Alan Lomax was hosting and producing programs for the CBS School of the Air in New York City, and participating in the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Radio Research Project at the Library of Congress. One activity of the project was to conduct recorded interviews that sampled public opinion from around the country, and the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, Lomax put out a call for folklorists to collect “man on the street” reactions to the event. Sixty years later, the American Folklife Center followed Lomax’s example by asking folklorists from across the nation to document immediate public reactions to the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

With national energies focused on the Second World War, folklife collecting activities slowed, but successive Folk Archive heads continued the policies and practices established by the Lomaxes — lending documentation equipment and supplies, publishing materials from the collections, and encouraging donations of material from this country and around the world. Benjamin A. Botkin helped to redefine and broaden the purview of folklore research to include ethnic studies and cultural traditions found in urban settings. He also encouraged folklorists to become involved in public performances and presentations by traditional artists. He is best known for his many popular anthologies, such as the Treasury of American Folklore (1944) and Lay My Burden Down (1945), which draws on the Folk Archive’s recordings of ex-slave narratives.

Helen Hartness Flanders with three New England folk singers
Helen Hartness Flanders with three New England folk singers in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, 1948.
(Library of Congress photo)

In 1948, Vermont folksong collector Helen Hartness Flanders, wife of Vermont senator Ralph Flanders, presented a lecture and concert of New England ballads, sung by three folk singers in the Coolidge Auditorium. The singers are: (front row, left to right) Charles Finnemore (from Maine), Elmer George, and Asa Davis (both from Vermont). Behind them, standing, are Charles Spivacke, chief of the Music Division; Helen Hartness Flanders; and Duncan Emerich, chief of the Folklore Section. Alan Lomax, with whom Flanders consulted regarding her own collecting efforts in Vermont, staged the first folk music program at the Library in 1940.

Duncan Emrich was another Harvard-trained folklorist and historian (like Robert Gordon, John Lomax, and Benjamin Botkin) who advanced Folk Archive acquisition efforts. The growing reputation of the archive following World War II resulted in a flood of requests for reference information and services, both from private individuals and from radio, motion picture, and publishing firms. Emrich argued vigorously for a larger staff to help respond to the many demands of acquisition, processing, and reference. The Library failed to hire additional staff but did name Emrich chief of a Folklore Section created within the Music Division. (The unit was abandoned after Emrich’s departure.) Emrich developed a visionary four-year plan for acquiring recordings from twelve states whose traditional culture was not represented in the archive, with a particular interest in the narrative, in occupational culture, and in materials from urban areas and minority language groups. He also proposed documenting traditional performers from foreign lands, such as Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and Australia. To facilitate his plan, Emrich visited twenty-one colleges and universities around the country to initiate a network of university-based documentary programs and to urge the creation of state folklore archives.

A new generation of regional collectors was at work following World War II. Wayland Hand was working among the miners in Butte, Montana; Arthur Campa, collecting Hispanic songs in New Mexico; and Thelma James, recording among the minority communities in Detroit. The Archive of Folk Culture profited from all this effort, and collections eventually arrived at the Library, on the new documentary medium of tape, from Anne Grimes (Ohio folksongs), Ray B. Browne (Alabama folklife), Sherman Lee Pompey (folksongs and folklore from the Ozarks), Joseph S. Hall (folklife from the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee), Harry Oster (Iowa and Louisiana cultural traditions), and Alan Jabbour (fiddling traditions, featuring the legendary Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Virginia).

In the Library’s annual report for 1950, halfway through his tenure as head, Duncan Emrich reported that the number of discs in the collection had reached ten thousand, and that henceforth the medium of choice for the documentation of sound would be tape recordings. Significantly, he reported to the Librarian, Luther Evans:

It is possible to say, in 1950, that the pioneering phase of field collecting and the establishment of Archives has come to a close and that in the future emphasis should be directed to coordinated efforts, to elimination of duplication, and to strong encouragement for scholars and others to use — in fairly exhaustive studies — the materials already gathered.

Mississippi John Hurt playing a guitar,  with Rae Korson and Joseph C. Hickerson in the background
Bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, Rae Korson (left), and Joseph C. Hickerson (center), in the Library of Congress Recording Laboratory, March 17, 1964.
(Library of Congress photo)

Mississippi John Hurt made a number of commercial recordings in 1928, but farmed for a living, never pursuing music professionally. In the early 1960s, a fan of Hurt's music contacted him and convinced him to travel to Washington and record for the Library of Congress.

In 1955, when Emrich resigned his position, his assistant, Rae Korson, was named head of the Folk Archive. Her husband, folklorist George Korson, documented songs and lore of Pennsylvania coal miners, and that work is included in the archive today. Rae Korson had served as assistant and reference librarian to Lomax and Botkin, as well as to Emrich. In her new position, she stressed the importance of maintenance and preservation of the vast holdings that had accumulated, an emphasis that was consistent with the policies of L. Quincy Mumford, then Librarian of Congress. She was particularly interested in improving reference service and publishing additional recordings from the Folk Archive. In 1963, Korson hired Joseph C. Hickerson (to take the place of reference librarian Donald Leavitt) and Pat Markland (to fill a new position as secretary), bringing the staff to three. Hickerson himself would later become head of what was by then called the Archive of Folk Song.

Alan Jabbour followed Korson as head (1969-74). He had both strong academic credentials and fieldwork experience, and in keeping with his own interests as a folksong collector he resumed the practice of making field expeditions. With Carl Fleischhauer, he conducted a field project in West Virginia, from 1970 to 1972, to study the expressive traditions of the Hammons family of Pocahontas County, and this effort resulted in a boxed-set of two-LP recordings (1973) consisting of music, song, storytelling, and oral history. In addition, Jabbour traveled to various places in pursuit of important collections, and he acquired significant holdings in Native American traditional culture, including a small collection of early cylinders from the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, among them Jesse Walter Fewkes’s 1890 recordings of Passamaquoddy Indians. In 1972, Jabbour also acquired a large and important collection documenting songs, ballads, and folk plays of the British Isles from the American folklorist James Madison Carpenter, an effort inspired by a letter he discovered in the Folk Archive from Carpenter to Alan Lomax. The elderly Carpenter had disappeared from the scene twenty years earlier, but through the Harvard University Alumni Association Jabbour was able to track him to his home in Booneville, Mississippi, and purchase the collection for the archive.

The 1950s and 1960s spawned a folksong revival in the United States that included the release of commercial recordings from many popular performers and groups, a proliferation of coffeehouse “folksingers,” and spontaneous hootenannies everywhere. The Folk Archive both nourished and profited from this renewed interest and the new popularity of music with traditional roots. The collections were a resource for performers of many sorts seeking examples of traditional musical performance, and the Folk Archive gained attention that brought in new collections.

In 1974 Alan Jabbour moved to the National Endowment for the Arts to direct its newly created Folk Arts Program, and Joseph C. Hickerson became head of the Folk Archive. Hickerson did much to argue the case for the importance of documenting and collecting material from the folksong revival. Folk festivals were enormously popular during the 1970s, and Hickerson encouraged donations of material documenting the movement. Under Hickerson’s leadership, special emphasis was placed on the organization and cataloging of the archive’s collections, the creation of listening tapes to facilitate the study of the holdings by visiting scholars, and the further production and dissemination of recordings. Between 1974 and 1976, as part of its American Revolution Bicentennial program, the Library of Congress issued the first five albums in a new fifteen-album series Folk Music of America, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Jessie Lee Smith being interviewed by folklorist Beverly Robinson
Folklorist Beverly Robinson (right) with Jessie Lee Smith, on the porch of his home, Tifton, Georgia, August, 1977.
(South-Central Georgia Folklife Project Collection. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer)

For its cultural surveys and field projects, the American Folklife Center formed teams of field-workers, led by one or more members of its own staff but also including cultural specialists from the local area and from other parts of the country. The South-Central Georgia project was initiated by the Arts Experiment Station Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and conducted in cooperation with local arts and governmental agencies.

The American Folklife Center

During the decade preceding the establishment of the American Folklife Center in 1976, a number of factors conjoined to bring about the legislation that created it. In 1967 the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife was held for the first time on the National Mall, bringing a wide range of traditional artists to Washington and winning enthusiastic congressional support. About the same time, the approaching American Revolution Bicentennial stimulated a reexamination of pluralism in American life. A number of dedicated people, notably folklorist and labor historian Archie Green, walked the halls of Congress to lobby for congressional recognition of the importance of regional and ethnic cultures. Many cultural specialists believed the time was right for a national center devoted to the preservation and study of folklife.

The American Folklife Preservation Act, Public Law 94-201, which resulted from these efforts, defines the term “American folklife” as “the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional.” It states that “the diversity inherent in American folklife has contributed greatly to the cultural richness of the Nation and has fostered a sense of individuality and identity among the American people.”

The American Folklife Preservation Act was approved by both houses of Congress at the end of 1975, and signed into law by President Gerald Ford on January 2, 1976. The legislation created an American Folklife Center and charged the new organization to “preserve and present American folklife.” Initially intended for the Smithsonian Institution, the center was placed in the Library of Congress, in part to build upon the work of the Folk Archive already there.

The Folklife Center operates under the supervision of the Librarian of Congress and a board of trustees composed of individuals from private life appointed by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the Librarian of Congress; officials from federal agencies with cultural programs, appointed by the president of the United States; and ex officio members — the Librarian of Congress, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the chairs of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the director of the American Folklife Center, and the presidents of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the American Folklore Society.

The Folklife Center’s enabling legislation directs it to “preserve and present American folklife” through programs of research, scholarship, training, live performances, exhibits, publications, and preservation. The legislation also calls for the establishment and maintenance of a national archive “with any Federal department, agency, or institution.” But, of course, a folk archive was near at hand, and the Archive of Folk Culture was transferred from the Music Division to the center in 1978. Thus, the traditional archival activities of acquisition, processing, preservation, and reference have remained central to the mission and the daily life of the American Folklife Center.

Neptune Plaza with performers on the steps
The Bluegrass Cardinals, from Virginia, on the steps of the Thomas Jefferson Building, April 25, 1977.
(Library of Congress photo)

The popularity of a concert on the Neptune Plaza, in front of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building, presented on September 23, 1976, led to the creation of an annual series, inaugurated the following year. Over the years, the Neptune Plaza Concert Series has entertained and enlightened audiences with a diverse assortment of traditional music and dance from this country and around the world.
The Neptune Plaza Concert Series ended in 1995. The current concert series, Homegrown, presents performances by artists from the US states, trusts, and territories. The Folklife Center also sponsors a lecture series, symposia, and other events.

In September 1976, Alan Jabbour, who had served earlier as head of the Folk Archive, became the first director of the American Folklife Center. In 1977, the first full year of its operations, the center launched two field documentary projects, the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project and the South-Central Georgia Folklife Project, setting a pattern that came to characterize much of its early work. One project was urban and one rural, but both emphasized the importance of documenting artistic traditions professionally, using both sound recordings and still photography, with an eye both to creating public products such as books and exhibitions and to building the collections in the Folk Archive. Teams of center field-workers sought to document not only music but also verbal arts, material culture, and occupational traditions, as well as other aspects of culture.

The creation of the American Folklife Center also engaged the U.S. Congress in the folklore enterprise. Whereas most Folk Archive collections had resulted from the vision and interest of individuals — both private citizens and those working for government agencies and large public institutions — many of the center’s field documentary projects were now carried out in cooperation with the National Park Service, often at the behest of a member (or members) of Congress. The center has worked with the Park Service on cultural heritage surveys in northern Maine; Lowell, Massachusetts; the New Jersey Pine Barrens and Paterson, New Jersey; along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Virginia and North Carolina; and at New River Gorge, in West Virginia.

In 1979, the Folklife Center launched the Federal Cylinder Project, one of its most ambitious undertakings. Over the decades, the Folk Archive had received thousands of original, one-of-a-kind wax-cylinder recordings of ethnographic material from field documentation conducted from1890 through the 1930s, primarily of American Indian music. The Library's Recording Laboratory had developed a special expertise in the technically challenging work of copying these recordings. In the 1930s and 1940s, some were copied onto disc, and beginning in the 1960s others were copied onto magnetic tape. Now a commitment was made to copy all of the more than ten-thousand wax cylinders and cylinder-based recordings in the archive for preservation and access. Word of the project brought even more cylinders to the Library.

The Federal Cylinder Project was established to arrange, catalog, and transfer to preservation tape this priceless heritage of music. In addition, the project made cassette-tape copies of the recordings to return to the tribes of origin. This last activity exemplified a central philosophical tenet of the Folk Archive and of many ethnographic archives throughout the United State, that the documentary materials ultimately belong to the communities of origin. For many years, representatives of American Indian tribes have visited the American Folklife Center to use the collections for their own programs of cultural preservation and revitalization.

Since the Folklife Center’s establishment in 1976, the Folk Archive has grown dramatically, both from the field documentation initiatives undertaken by the center itself and from the acquisition of major collections. By 1981, the archive was officially named the Archive of Folk Culture to reflect the breadth of its collections. In July 1999 Peggy A. Bulger succeeded Alan Jabbour as director of the American Folklife Center. In October 1999, the center was granted permanent authorization by the U.S. Congress. In 2002, Michael Taft was appointed head of the Folk Archive.

Today, the archive contains more than 3 million items and is truly the national folk archive of the United States. In keeping with the multicultural character of American society and the international scope of the Library of Congress, its holdings also encompass folklife materials from around the world. Yet many items in this storehouse of information are imperiled because of the fragile nature of sound recordings. In urgent need of preservation are thousands of original audio recordings made over the course of the twentieth century by folklorists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and other ethnographers, on wax cylinder, wire, aluminum disc, acetate, audiotape, and videotape. Many, including those from the past several decades, require immediate conservation treatment and copying to other formats. Also in need of preservation are scores of photographs, drawings, diagrams, maps, and field notes that complement and provide interpretive information on the recordings.

In July 2000, a project proposed jointly by the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage of the Smithsonian Institution was awarded a grant for $750,000 to preserve the historic sound recordings housed at the two institutions. The White House Millennium Council’s preservation program Save America’s Treasures, in partnership with the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, made the grant.

Among its several aims, the Save Our Sounds audio preservation project, as it came to be called, serves as a model and is building expertise at the American Folklife Center that can then be shared with others. All ethnographic collections will have to face the inevitable deterioration of their sound recordings, and all will need standards and guidelines for preservation. If the last hundred years have been a time of great accumulation of recorded sound, then the twenty-first century promises to be a time of major preservation of sound recordings to ensure that they remain accessible.

The American Folklife Center is a small agency with a very large mission. The Library of Congress provides essential institutional support, of course, but to extend its reach the center engages in cooperative agreements with other public and private organizations, such as those with the National Park Service for field documentation projects and others with commercial firms for various print and music recording publication projects. For example, the center has a cooperative arrangement with the International Storytelling Foundation of Jonesborough, Tennessee, to collect, preserve, and disseminate information about storytelling. The center has likewise acquired thousands of hours of audio and video recordings, photographs, manuscripts, and publications from the National Storytelling Festival. Through an innovative arrangement with the National Council for the Traditional Arts, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, the center is acquiring a vast collection of five thousand hours of recordings from the National Folk Festival and other events.

In November 2000, the American Folklife Center launched the Veterans History Project, which was authorized by Public Law 106-380. Approved by President Bill Clinton on October 27, 2000, the Veterans History Project is designed to collect and preserve the personal stories of America’s war veterans and to make selections from these stories available on the Internet. This immense project has been undertaken with the cooperation and participation of many project partners, including the military service organizations and numerous individual volunteers, and is supported by a major grant from AARP.

Thus does the American Folklife Center find itself newly engaged in its mission “to preserve and present American folklife” in the new millennium, as it continues to fulfill the dream of the Folk Archive’s first inspired collector, Robert W. Gordon, who sought to gather together in a national archive all our songs and stories, a great task he regarded as “a national project with many workers.”

Erica Brady copying wax cylinder recordings to tape
Federal Cylinder Project sound technician and folklorist Erika Brady, in the Recording Laboratory of the Library of Congress (circa 1980), makes a copy of a wax-cylinder recording using a reel-to-reel tape machine.
(American Folklife Center photo by Carl Fleischhauer)

Peter Alyea copies a recording to a digital file
Peter Alyea, digital conversion specialist and sound engineer in the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, transfers the sound from a disc recording to a digital file.
(American Folklife Center photo by James Hardin, February 2003)

The American Folklife Center is one of the world's foremost repositories of early wax-cylinder field recordings documenting the music and lore of Native American cultures, among them many recordings transferred from the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology. By the early 1970s it was clear that time was taking its toll on the cylinders and preservation duplication was urgent. Renewed interest on the part of American Indian tribes in their own cultural heritage heightened the need to preserve and catalog this extensive collection. The American Folklife Center's Save our Sound Project is preserving as digital files many thousands of endangered audio recordings, made in different formats, from the 1890s to the present.
For a menu of American Folklife Center collections that have been converted to digital formats and presented online, go to the Online Collections and Presentations web page.

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( October 1, 2019 )
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