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About the American Folklife Center

The twentieth century has been called the age of documentation, and folklorists and other ethnographers have taken advantage of each succeeding technology, from Thomas Edison's wax-cylinder recording machine, invented in 1877, to the latest digital audio equipment, in order to record the voices and music of many regional, ethnic, and cultural groups, in the United States and around the world. Much of this priceless documentation has been assembled and preserved in the American Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture, which founding head Robert W. Gordon, in 1928, called "a national project with many workers." As we enter the twenty-first century the American Folklife Center is working on the critical issues of digital preservation, Web access, and archival management.

Image of dancers and musicians at Neptune Plaza, Library of Congress
Dancers and Musicians at the Library of Congress Neptune
Plaza Concert
. Reid Baker, photographer, 1985.

The collections of the American Folklife Center include Native American song and dance; ancient English ballads; the tales of "Bruh Rabbit," told in the Gullah dialect of the Georgia Sea Islands; the stories of ex-slaves, told while still vivid in the minds of those who endured one of the most harrowing periods of American history; an Appalachian fiddle tune that has been heard on concert stages around the world; a Cambodian wedding in Lowell, Massachusetts; a Saint Joseph's Day Table tradition in Pueblo, Colorado; Balinese Gamelan music recorded shortly before the Second World War; documentation from the lives of cowboys, farmers, fishermen, coal miners, shop keepers, factory workers, quilt makers, professional and amateur musicians, and housewives from throughout the United States; first-hand accounts of community events from every state; and international collections from every region of the world.

All of these images, sounds, written accounts, and a myriad more items of cultural documentation await researchers at the Center's Archive of Folk Culture, where over 4,000 collections, assembled over the years from "many workers" embody the very heart and soul of our national traditional life and the cultural life of communities from many regions of the world.

The collections in the Center's Archive of Folk Culture include folk cultural material from all fifty states, as well as United States trusts, territories, and the District of Columbia. Most of these areas have been served by the American Folklife Center's cultural surveys, equipment loan program, publications, and other projects.

Image of Woody Guthrie
[Woody Guthrie, half-length portrait, facing front, playing guitar]. New York World
Telegram and Sun Collection,
Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number:

Folklife is an integral part of all American lives and an essential part of the National Library. The story of America is reflected in the cultural productions of ordinary people who live everyday lives, from cooking and eating meals, to the activities of work and play, to religious observances and seasonal celebration. Folklife includes the songs we sing, the stories we tell, the crafts we make. The American Folklife Center was created in 1976 by the U.S. Congress to "preserve and present" this great heritage of American folklife through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, publication, and training. The American Folklife Center was made permanent in 1999. The Center includes the Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in the Library of Congress in 1928, and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world.

On this Web site you will find not only an introduction to the activities of the American Folklife Center and its Archive of Folk Culture but also news about programs and activities, online presentations of multiformat collections, and other resources to facilitate folklife projects and study. The American Folklife Center aims to be the national center for folklife documentation and research, and this Web site offers a virtual destination for those who cannot visit the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

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  December 2, 2008
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