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American Folklife Center Collections: Washington, D.C.

This guide provides access to ethnographic resources documenting expressive culture in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress.


Letter from Philip Cohen to the Librarian of Congress, December 16, 1941. Radio Research Project manuscript collection (AFC 1941/005). Library of Congress, American Folklife Center.

American Folklife Center collections from Washington, D.C. document expressive culture from nearly every corner of the federal district and span over a century. Beginning with the Alice C. Fletcher Collection of Chippewa Cylinder Recordings (AFC 1948/071) recording on January 24, 1899 and continuing to StoryCorps interviews made today, AFC collections illustrate the rich history of the Capitol city.

The Shared Experience

The American Folklife Center works to document collective memory, focusing on the shared moments in our nation's history that have contributed to our collective identities. 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. 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. The American Folklife Center holds unique documentation in this area. Particularly noteworthy are materials from the "Man-on-the-Street" interviews collection (AFC 1941/004), which includes approximately twelve hours of opinions recorded in the days and months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor from more than two hundred individuals in cities and towns across the United States.

On December 8, 1941 (the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), Alan Lomax, then "assistant in charge" of the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center archive), sent a telegram to fieldworkers in ten different localities across the United States, asking them to collect "man-on-the-street" reactions of ordinary Americans to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war by the United States. A second series of interviews, called "Dear Mr. President," was recorded in January and February 1942, Radio Research Project manuscript collection (AFC 1941/005). Both collections feature a wide diversity of opinion concerning the war and other social and political issues of the day, such as racial prejudice and labor disputes. The result is a portrait of everyday life in America as the United States entered World War II. Sixty years later, the American Folklife Center mounted a similar effort to document national sentiment in 2011 following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This effort is featured in the September 11, 2001 Documentary Project.

More recently, the Nancy Groce Collection of 2009 Inauguration Photographs (AFC 2013/027) and the Michelle Stefano Collection of Photographs of Inauguration Day and the Women's March on Washington, D.C., 2017 January 20-21 (AFC 2017/006) both exemplify this phenomenon of collective identity building and public memory. National pride and activism come together in these collections to show the true power of the shared experience.

Additional Collections of Interest

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to digital content are provided when available.

Podcasts and Blog Posts

Public Programming

While originally from Marlyand, renowned discographer, researcher, author, broadcaster and scholar of folk and ethnic music Dick Spottswood's work in the DMV area (DC-Maryland-Virgina) cannot be overstated. Of note, Spottswood has hosted the program "The Dick Spottswood Show" on WAMU-FM in Washington, DC. since 1967. Dick Spottswood participated in a two-part event at the Library in May of 2019, featuring an interview about his career and accomplishments followed by a panel with prominent Washington area folklorists, ethnomusicologists, discographers and archivists highlighting his numerous contributions to American music.