A national research, archival, and programming center established in 1976 within the Library of Congress (LC) in Washington, DC, by Public Law 94–201, the American Folklife Preservation Act. The center’s congressional mandate to “preserve and present American folklife” has led to a variety of field projects, publications, public programs, and exhibitions, and its Archive of Folk Culture is the largest and most comprehensive North American ethnographic collection of folk music, folklore, and folklife. The center was created after several years of congressional debate regarding its value, location, and functions, and a lobbying effort supported by the American Folklore Society and organized by folklorist Archie Green. The effort also resulted in the creation of the folk and traditional arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and it coaxed the National Endowment for the Humanities into greater recognition of the field. The center is overseen by a board of trustees, and its budget is from federal appropriations supplemented by private funds. The center undertakes projects that document folk cultural traditions in the field. Such projects continue the tradition of the center’s Archive of Folk Culture, which since 1928
has used fieldwork to generate collections. In the archive’s early history, documentation
focused on musical traditions and used sound recordings as the primary medium. The
center’s fieldwork includes verbal traditions, dance, ceremony, material culture,
traditional knowledge and skills, and “way of life.” Documentary media include not only
sound recordings but still photography and other visual media.
Center publications range from research tools to policy studies, from bibliographies
and discographies to compact discs and a videodisc, from informational booklets to
exhibition catalogs. Two series, Publications of the American Folklife Center and Studies
in American Folklife, are ongoing, and a third, Folklife Annual, produced five editions between 1985 and 1990. Other center publications have appeared in cooperation with
private-sector presses and media companies. Folklife Center News (1977–) publishes
articles on center activities and essays on the field.
Center exhibitions have ranged from modest displays to major traveling exhibitions
with book-length catalogs, such as The American Cowboy (1983) or Old Ties, New
Attachments: Italian American Folklife in the West (1992). Public events include a
summer concert series, winter workshops and demonstrations, periodic lectures,
symposia, and scholarly conferences. The center’s tradition of technological
experimentation began with its archive. Just as Robert Winslow Gordon experimented
with a portable disc-cutting machine in the early 1930s, the center produced a videodisc
(The Ninety-Six Ranch) in the 1980s and has pioneered in using the Internet to share
information and collections digitally in the 1990s.
Reference services are available in both the archival collections and the general
subject areas of folklore and folklife. In addition to direct access to the collections,
visitors to the Folklife Reading Room find a selection of the LC’s publications pertaining
to folklore and folklife, listening and viewing facilities, and extensive vertical files
covering persons, organizations, and subject areas. Reference services are available by
telephone, correspondence, or electronic mail. Folklife Sourcebook lists information
regarding the national field.