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Higher Education Resources Available in the American Folklife Center

Teaching with Collections

Geraldine Niva Johnson, photographer. Mrs. Sam T. Smith, creator. Lone Star Quilt, detail. 1978. Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

The AFC's online resources and collections offer particularly rewarding opportunities for student learning in the classroom or remotely. As explored in the Online Resources section of this guide, we offer webcast videos of AFC events from over the past several years, including lectures, symposia, and concerts. A range of posts on the Folklife Today blog that take closer looks at AFC collections and material have been assigned as course readings. Moreover, multimedia presentations, such as Story Maps and Podcasts, are dedicated to exploring AFC collections and bringing historical and cultural context to the many stories and experiences of people represented therein.

Importantly, dozens of AFC collections have been digitized and made available on the Library's website, enhancing access to a rich array of primary-source material from beyond the Center's Reading Room. Interviews with Civil Rights leaders, ship channel workers in Houston, and recorded performances of blues musicians in 1970s Chicago, as examples, can be engaged with by students across the world. This documentation spans the late 19th century through to today, and includes recordings of traditional music, oral histories, photographs of cultural practices and places, as well as manuscripts, such as related correspondence, ethnographer field notes, audio and photograph logs, and other texts.

Exploring any of these collections can be an assignment in itself, and they can inspire a wide range of student research projects that draw on peoples accounts of historical events and the cultures of which they were and are a part. These pages assist educators in exploring the AFC's online collections, inspiring ways in which they can be integrated into teaching.

Teaching to a topic

AFC materials are relevant to a wide variety of fields and disciplines, including history, linguistics, literature, social sciences, music, cultural studies, area studies, and critical theory. Moreover, advancements in technology and archival digitization make it easier than ever before to include primary source materials in a virtual or hybrid learning environment. Educators (at all levels) can draw on first-person accounts and photographic, audio, and audio-visual documentation of people’s cultural livelihoods and experiences to deepen student engagement with diverse cultures, historical events, and geographical contexts that span rural, suburban and urban places.

In the section, select AFC online collections are described in terms of their benefits for student learning in general, as well as in particular relation to personal narratives, music and dance, and foodways traditions. Please note that other collections can be found in the AFC's Research Guides, as linked to in the Exploring AFC Resources section of this guide.

Below are general suggestions on how particular online collections can foster critical engagement with U.S. history.

Interrogating History and the Social Structure

A significant amount of AFC collections are based on oral history and documentation of the lived experience. And a number of digitized, online collections shed important light on the history of inequality in the U.S., such as relating to slavery and segregation, and the fight for equal rights. For instance, the following three online collections can be used to interrogate this history as based on first-person accounts of its impacts on people's lives and how they persevered, offering important discussions on issues of racial and social equity today.

Examining Cultural Expression, Identity, and How Traditions Change

A number of online AFC collections are based on field 'surveys' facilitated by the Center in a range of places across the U.S. between the late 1970s through the 1990s. And the recent Story Map, American Folklife Center: Field Surveys (1977-1998), explores these field survey projects and the rich documentation that they produced.

As three examples, the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, the Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection, and the Lowell Folklife Project Collection are based on ethnographic surveys of the cultural livelihoods of diverse Chicagoans in 1977, Rhode Island residents in 1979, and of Lowellians in 1987-1988, respectively. For these projects, AFC staff worked alongside contract ethnographers to document music, foodways, occupational culture, family traditions, material culture, and other regional traditions. Moreover, interviews focus on not only their cultural expressions, but economic, political, and social issues that were (and are) important to them. As a result, the archival collections that they have become reveal layered cultural histories of the late 1970s in Chicago and Rhode Island and the 1980s in Lowell, Massachusetts, all from the grassroots perspectives of the residents who were documented.

Importantly, the ethnographic approach of the projects captured people's firsthand experiences of migration and immigration, settlement, and making a living in an array of ways. These collections can be used to understand patterns of change, continuity, and connection in communities and how they came together to express senses of pride and identity.

With thousands of photographs and sound recordings, including interviews, students can analyze these digitized collections from various viewpoints. For example, what do these slice of life stories tell about the intersections of cultural expression and identity in the late 20th century, and what connections can be made today, especially with respect to students' own life stories and the experiences of their families and communities? Students can focus on one collection and dive deep into examining the lived realities of those documented and analyze patterns across collection items. Furthermore, what political, social, and cultural issues were important to those interviewed, and what connections can be made to present issues? For instance, which of the many community-run cultural centers and museums documented in the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection still exist, and what are their priorities today?

One of the AFC's most frequently received questions come from patrons of all ages asking, "How can I donate my story to the Library of Congress?" The Center is directing our patrons to be part of the nationwide storytelling initiative StoryCorps, as the AFC is the repository for the StoryCorps archive. All interviews conducted through their platform will be available for researchers to listen to in our Reading Room and preserved by the Library of Congress.

What is StoryCorps?

In their own words, "StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity's stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world." As such, StoryCorps is an external institution separate from the Library of Congress and AFC, whose work with storytelling and oral history provides a rich archive of the public memory across socioeconomic, cultural, and generational lines. Launched in 2003 from a storybooth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, this organization has grown to facilitate interviews with anyone who has access to their mobile platforms, and is widely known from their weekly broadcasts of selected interviews on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Of note are their initiatives celebrating diversity, such as: the Griot Initiative, the largest collection of African American stories collected in history; Stonewall Outloud, an effort to preserve stories of the LGBTQ community; and most recently StoryCorps Connect, a first-of-its-kind platform for remote interviewing to bring people together during the challenging COVID-19 pandemic.

Engaging StoryCorps and AFC Archival Collections in Your Teaching

On the AFC's blog, Folklife Today, AFC Librarian Allina Migoni offered suggestions for how primary resources can be used in conjunction with oral history projects. Her post "Creating Communities and Building Collections One Conversation at a Time" was published on October 1, 2020. It explores how primary resources from the California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collection and the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection online presentations can be used to guide conversations and conduct oral histories in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

How Do I Use StoryCorps as an Educator?

StoryCorps has an app for mobile devices for in-person interviewing, as well as additional capabilities for video conferencing, a searchable website, and training materials for all age levels. At the link below, StoryCorps presents a list of example questions that may be useful when conducting your interviews, along with the downloadable StoryCorps oral history app for personal devices.

The StoryCorps website offers additional information for educators with class project ideas to incorporate into single assignments or longer-term collaborative projects. Educators have made use of the "community" tool within StoryCorps to assign interview projects to their students and create a central project page with interview guidelines and access to all student work. The interviews conducted via StoryCorps are freely accessible to the public if you so choose. However, users also have the ability to mark their materials as private, if you would like to set your own privacy standards. Visit their site for lesson plan ideas, material lists, and interview tools at the link below.

Using AFC Collections to Illuminate Broader Social Issues: Classroom Activities

The above example of using the StoryCorps platform for student interviewing works to engage students as researchers of collections, but also positions them squarely as contributors to the AFC collection and larger public audience of StoryCorps. However, it may not always be appropriate to create new content as part of a given curriculum. To this end, here are additional ideas of how to incorporate AFC archival materials into your lesson planning.

Catalog Searches on Selected Subjects

The AFC has audio recordings and printed texts of stories from cultures around the world. These stories come in a variety of genres and forms, including ancient myths and legends, personal-experience narratives, and the latest urban legends and e-mail hoaxes. The AFC's collections are strong in English-language materials, including stories conveyed through American English regional dialects. In addition, other important collections feature items in Gullah (Sea Islands Creole), English-based Caribbean dialects, and French-based Creole dialects.

The American Folklife Center has audio and video recordings of musical performances and dancing, representing virtually all diasporic communities in America in every state and territory Native American communities from the 1890s to the present, and communities around the world, with emphasis on the fieldwork of English-speaking ethnographers. The AFC's collections are particularly strong in pre-1950 African American genres, pre-1950 Anglo American genres, and 1930s-1960s Folk Music Revival materials. There are also several collections of Spanish-language and Portuguese-language materials related to music and dance.

Food is essential to the human condition, and the American Folklife Center's collections contain recordings, photographs, and written accounts that document food related events, food preparation, and the meanings of foods in cultures across the globe.

Images from the AFC collections