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Accessing Ethnographic Collections at the Library of Congress

An overview of research tools and methods useful in exploring ethnographic collections held by the American Folklife Center.


Jonas Dovydenas, photographer. John Georganas Family Orchestra at the home of Angelos Kontaxis, Chicago, Illinois. 1977. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

The American Folklife Center is a research center at the Library of Congress dedicated to ethnographic documentation and public programming, and was established through an act of Congress: the 1976 American Folklife Preservation Act (Public Law 94-201). The archive of the American Folklife Center holds collections documenting expressive culture practices in the United States and around the world. This guide provides research tools and strategies for accessing those collections.

Archival collections at the Library of Congress have three enterprise-wide access systems, which are described in this guide: digital collections, finding aids, and the online catalog. There are also local tools, unique to our reading room. The historic cross-collection guides provide detailed item-level information, and will eventually be integrated into LibGuides. Other resources in the American Folklife Center Reading Room include hardcopy files related to collections and subjects, as well as an historic card catalog. This constellation of access systems is held together through controlled vocabularies, specifically subject headings and thesauri.

Before You Visit the American Folklife Center

The American Folklife Center Reading Room (where Archive collections are accessed) is located on the ground floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Room G31. View a map showing the location.

We strongly advise you to contact the American Folklife Center reference staff at least one week in advance of your visit in order to allow us enough time to locate collection materials and to provide you with any additional information you might need. Please contact us via email at [email protected], or by telephone at 202-707-5510. Arrangements must be made to access unprocessed materials (digital and analog) or materials stored offsite. Our hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30 am until 5:00 pm, except Federal Holidays.

All researchers using the Library of Congress must obtain a Reader Identification Card. Please see the "Using the Library of Congress"  of this guide for more information.

Keep in mind that the Library of Congress has multiple Reading Rooms and that your research may take you beyond the American Folklife Center Reading Room. Allow enough time on your visit to thoroughly explore the Library's resources.