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Historic Preservation: Resources in the American Folklife Center

This research guide focuses on resources supporting research into historic preservation and relevant subtopics, such as vernacular architecture, as documented in the collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.



Howard W. Marshall, photographer. Assayer's cabin on Tiger Road near Breckenridge, CO. Aug. 22, 1980. Colorado Folklife Project collection. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

This guide provides an introduction to doing research on the topic of historic preservation using American Folklife Center collections. For the purposes of this guide, "historic preservation" encompasses the practice of identifying historic sites, objects, cultural landscapes, architecture, and other places - and promoting their protection. AFC recognizes that its collections can be used to study and document the relationship between cultural practices that are inextricably linked to such locations, and can even be used to support applications for legal recognition of these sites through formal local, state, Tribal and federal designation processes.

Vernacular architecture - defined as construction using traditional materials, common in local or regional contexts, and designed and completed without significant professional assistance - is of increasing interest to historic preservationists. In many respects, vernacular architecture, a form of material culture, can be thought of as a built landscape embedded in and arising from cultural traditions and everyday expressive practice. It is purpose-built and stylistically linked to the culture and heritage of the community that has constructed and uses it. Folklore studies of vernacular architecture typically address how buildings are constructed, by whom and of what, how they are used, what they mean to both those who have constructed them and those who inhabit them, the symbolism of their decorative elements, and how these meanings may shift over time.

Historic preservation is necessarily linked to multiple areas of distinction within the AFC Collection Policy, chief among them Folklife and Material Culture and Public Memory and Collective Experience. Embedded links in the headings below will take you to published research guides for each of these topics.

The Collection Policy Statement for the American Folklife Center has this to say about each of these areas of distinction:

Folklife and Material Culture: Folklife and material culture encompass a broad array of community traditions and tangible forms of expression, including but not limited to craft, folk art and vernacular architecture as well as customs and practices such as foodways, folk medicine and beliefs, secular celebrations or life cycle rites of passage.

Public Memory and Collective Experience: Communities and cultural groups often turn to folklife and traditional expressive forms to publicly name shared collective experience or comment on events of shared historical significance. Such activity often is a critical vehicle for creating community identity. In recent years, more communities and cultural groups are using oral history and documentation techniques, personal narrative, secular forms of commemoration, celebration and social protest, as well as material culture to express and frame shared historical experience.

In relation to historic preservation, these two areas of distinction often overlap through an ongoing need for study and preservation of the physical characteristics of a building, the subsequent discussion of its symbolism, uses and purpose within a community and the preservation and continuation of oral narratives of the community members who claim connection to such a place. As historic preservation is as much an exercise in preserving the narrative essence of a structure and/or landscape’s place within a culture, the approach to such preservation must incorporate preservation of both the physical and the anecdotal place.

Explorations of vernacular architecture, cultural landscapes, and the interconnectedness of traditional lifeways within a specific geographic region are central to many American Folklife Center collections. Examples include the Lowell Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1987/042) with its documentation of contemporary ethnic neighborhoods and community life related to the history of industrialization in Lowell, Massachusetts; the Maine Acadian Cultural Survey collection (AFC 1991/029), containing fieldwork around the vernacular architecture and material culture along the Maine/New Brunswick Canadian border; and the Women Architects: Archie Green Fellows Project (AFC 2019/031) featuring oral history narratives with 15 women architects, many of whom have a background in historic preservation, adaptive reuse of buildings and community-driven sustainable design. These collections and guides are fully described in the Digital Collections section of this guide.


Accessing Ethnographic Collections at the Library of Congress

The following guide offers general research strategies for use of the American Folklife Center collections.