What to Collect
|Marilyn Bañuelos (right)
photographs Connie Romero as she interviews rancher
Corpus Gallegos on the vega, a publicly owned piece of grazing land
in San Luis,
Colorado, during a July 1994 field documentation training school jointly
by the American Folklife Center, Colorado College, and the Center for
Studies of the University of New Mexico. Photo by James Hardin
We are accustomed to thinking of scholarly work as taking place in a library,
and the library is often the first stop as either the amateur or the professional
folklorist begins his or her investigation. In the library, as well as
on the Internet, in museums, archives, private collections, and other repositories,
you will find information on what other researchers have discovered about
your topic of interest. There you will also find guides such as maps, local
histories, and directories for conducting your own research. You may also
find leads for people to interview.
The scholarly reports and publications from other researchers will help you
avoid repeating research that has already been done and provide a context
within which it is possible to ask new and informed questions.
Fieldwork, on the other hand, is scholarly work that requires firsthand
observation -- recording or documenting what you see and hear in a particular
setting, whether that be a rural farming community or a city neighborhood,
a local fish market or a grandmother's living room. It means gathering
together for analysis the raw material that may one day find its way into
a library or museum, to be used by future scholars or by the original researcher
to produce an essay, book, exhibit, or an online presentation.
Henrietta Yurchenco (right), one of the many
extraordinary collectors whose fieldwork documentation
is included in the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress.
She is shown here in the 1970s with a member of the Methodist Church that served
as a focus of her
research among the African American Gullah-speakers of John's
Island, South Carolina.
American Folklife Center photo by David Lewiston
The beginning of any research project, whether in the library or in the
field, is a statement of purpose that can be expressed in a few sentences.
It is important to develop that statement carefully since it may serve
as a way to introduce yourself to both community members and research and
reference librarians assisting you in preliminary, pre-fieldwork preparation.
Each time you visit a research facility or conduct an interview, be prepared
to explain the purpose of your project. In addition, you will want to explain
why you are doing it; if applicable, what your school or institutional
affiliation is; and how the information you collect will be used.
It is helpful to think of a field project in three parts. The three are
interdependent and equally important, and each part will be addressed in
1. Background research and preparation
2. The fieldwork itself
3. Organizing and preparing the material for archival
There are many possible subjects for a folklife project, such as one group's
ethnic heritage, a children's game, or local farming or maritime traditions.
When the project is under way, you will discover that sub-topics emerge.
The games of a particular schoolyard, for example, may include counting-out
rhymes, songs, a strategy for play, and material artifacts.
To indicate the breadth of possibilities for folklife research, a partial
list of the many kinds of traditional activities appears below. All of
the items are regarded by folklorists as expressions of traditional culture.
Any one of them might be the focus of a folklife project, or a project
may include several of them in combination.
To view examples of professional documentation projects in the American
Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture visit our site online at www.loc.gov/folklife/ndl.html
Oral and Musical Traditions
Spoken Word: tall tales, legends, humorous stories, personal experience
stories, proverbs, riddles, toasts and testimonies, mnemonic devices (rhymes),
nursery and game rhymes, speech play, ritual insults, jokes, family histories,
dialect and idiomatic speech, sermons
Song: ballads, children's songs, work songs, blues, sea shanties, ethnic
songs, play-party and game songs
Music: fiddle tunes, drumming, yodeling, whistling
Dance: clogging, square dance, round dance, buck dance, ethnic dance
Game, Play, and Strategy: tag games, guessing games, seeking games, competitive
games (dueling, daring, racing), game strategy (rules and techniques),
Artifacts: houses, outbuildings, barns, boats, floor plans, roofing materials,
masonry, wall and fence constructions, tools and implements
The Cultural Landscape: wall and fence placement, farm planning, farming
techniques, rural and urban use of land and space, physical and economic
regions and neighborhoods
and Trades: boat building, blacksmithing, coal mining, tool making,
papercutting, pottery, sailmaking, rope making, weaving, straw work,
Folk Art: graphic arts, furniture decoration, embroidery, beadwork, wood
carving, jewelry making, yard and garden decoration
The wedding of Cambodians Sopheap Muth and
Pen Hing at the home of Pen Hing's mother, Mrs. Chounn Chen, in Lowell,
Massachusetts, September 1987. New ethnic immigrants bring a wealth
of traditions to the United States. Some of these traditions are
maintained, some are lost, and some take new forms in their new settings.
From the American Folklife Center's Lowell Folklife Project. Photo
by John Lueders-Booth
Traditions and Customs
Rites of passage: birth, birthdays, baptism, marriage, funerals
Food preparation and recipes
Canning and curing processes
Traditional meal preparation
Religious or symbolic uses for food
Luck and magic
Festivals, Drama, Ritual
and calendrical events
Saints and nameday celebrations
Community festivals and pageants