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Public Memory and Collective Experience: Resources in the American Folklife Center

This research guide focuses on activities such as fieldwork, interpretation, and programming public memory and collective experience as it is documented in the collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.


AIDS Memorial Quilt Block 0040 for James Byron Smith, Michael St. Laurent, Steven Richards, Gary Linsky, Lloyd Phelps, Bill Richmond, Art Blackford, and Charlie. AIDS Memorial Quilt Records. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

This research guide focuses on activities such as fieldwork, interpretation, and programming on the topics of public memory and collective experience as documented in the collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The Collection Policy Statement for the American Folklife Center identifies public folklore as an area of distinction for our collections, noting:

Communities and cultural groups often turn to folklore 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.

Many American Folklife Center collections include documentation of shared experience by communities as well as collections initiated by the Library of Congress, other organizations, and individual researchers to work with communities in documenting experiences of historically significant events. Doing research on these topics may sometimes be challenging, because often the language in the descriptions of ethnographic collections does not make them readily discoverable. Some collections may be made with the intention of documenting collective experience or a community's sense of its own history. These may be large or small collections and may deal with important national events, local history, or documentation of a particular community or ethnic group at a particular historical moment. An example of documentation of a national event is the "Man-on-the-Street" Interviews Collection in which people were interviewed for their reactions to the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, for the Library of Congress.

Ethnographers may do their research with other goals in mind but happen on traditional ways that a community has found to talk about its own history or matters relating to national history, For example, recordings of former slaves were made by ethnographers in the 1930s and 1940s as the opportunity to do so arose during their field research. These recordings have been compiled in the presentation Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories,

The American Folklife Center has undertaken projects to collect field recordings at important times in the nation's history, such as the September 11, 2001 Documentary Project. The Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center solicits interviews of American war veterans so that future generations may hear veterans' experiences in their own words and better understand the realities of war. These he collections provide accounts of individuals dealing with other issues of importance to our understanding of American history, such as prejudice and civil rights.

The Civil Rights History Project was an initiative authorized by Congress to conduct a national survey of existing oral history collections with relevance to the Civil Rights movement to obtain justice, freedom and equality for African Americans and to record and make widely accessible new interviews with people who participated in the struggle.


Accessing Ethnographic Collections at the Library of Congress

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