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Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques

What to Do With the Results

Image: folklorists Stephanie Hall and Catherine Kerst At the American Folklife Center, folklorists Stephanie Hall and Catherine Kerst examine the Library of Congress's American Memory Web site, which includes numerous presentations based on documentation from Folklife Center field collections. Photo 1995 by James Hardin

So, you spent some time in the field. You took notes and you have a list of names, a pile of tapes and disks, and a sizable quantity of videos, slides, photographs, and negatives. In addition, you managed to pick up, for example, a few maps, posters of events you documented in the community, a program booklet or two, a votive candle, a piece of homemade needlepoint that was offered as a

Image: Smithsonian exhibit on cowboy life
In connection with its study of cowboy life, called the Paradise Valley (Nevada) Folklife Project, the American Folklife Center produced a book and exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, in 1980, both with the title Buckaroos in Paradise. American Folklife Center photo

gift by an appreciative informant, assorted expense receipts, a number of letters, and drafts of your preliminary field study plan. You are also, perhaps, five pounds heavier, because everyone wanted to feed you. You can lose the weight, but the collection should be safeguarded and carefully preserved.

The information and material you have collected satisfies or further stimulates your curiosity about your family, the immediate community, or the particular subject of your investigation. But it may also be of interest to others. Community centers, local and regional museums, and state and local historical societies often maintain folklife collections, and some academic institutions house archives of folklife materials. Organizing and labeling the diverse parts of your collection will make it more useful to you and to others. The staffs of these institutions and organizations may be willing to talk with you about how to handle your material and will be able to say whether or not your work is suitable for deposit at their institutions.

If you plan to place your collection within an institution, always contact that institution ahead of time to make sure that they are willing and able to take your collection and properly care for it. Ask for specific instructions on how they wish you to document and prepare your collection for donation.

Preserving Your Collection and Developing an Archive

The need to adhere to archival standards in organizing and preserving folklife materials has become increasingly recognized by professional and nonprofessional collectors nationally. Although a detailed presentation of specific archival techniques is far too extensive to present here, a few fundamentals will assure a good start. The care, processing, and proper storage of materials must be an integral part of the planning, budgeting, and carrying out of any field documentation project. Such treatment ensures the preservation and accessibility of the valuable collection you created.

Image:Tribal member Maxine White works with AFC staffer Laurel McIntyre
Tribal member Maxine White works with American Folklife Center staffer Laurel McIntyre at the 1999 harvest festival powwow, Macy, Nebraska. White reviewed documentation made by the Center at the 1983 Omaha powwow, and helped to identify people who were photographed at that time. Photo by Alan Jabbour

To protect your collections, here are a number of suggestions:

l. Use acid-neutral (archival quality) paper, files, and envelopes. Acid-neutral storage sleeves and boxes are expensive, but for long-term storage they are worth the cost.

2. Use archival quality, PH-neutral slide and negative protectors made of either paper or polyester.

3. Do not store negatives and photos in the glassine sleeves provided by photographic developing companies.

4. Use soft pencils or indelible pens for labeling photos, slides, and recordings.

5. Avoid paper clips, rubber bands, glues, and other metals and adhesives, which may result in damage and rust or leave sticky substances on your materials. Avoid stick-on labels, which leave a residue and may fall off over time.

6. Protect materials from magnetic fields, heat, sun and bright lights, humidity, and insects and rodents.

Image: Sandra Savage, Judy Ng, and Rachel Mears
In the American Folklife Center's collection processing area, Veterans History Project processing technicians Sandra Savage, Judy Ng, and Rachel Mears examine materials submitted by World War II veteran Clifton Davis, from Paris, Ohio. Each item will be logged, numbered, and carefully housed in acid-free folders and containers. Photo by James Hardin

7. If you are using a tape medium, fast-forward a few revolutions before recording and stop recording before the tape runs out.

8. Store materials away from overhead water pipes and areas where there is a risk of fire or flood. Do not store materials near refrigerators, television sets, and other electric equipment.

9. Remember, electrical equipment produces heat, and the popular tendency to rest a recording on a nearby speaker should be avoided since powerful magnets in speakers will damage magnetic recording tape.

Plan your labeling and numbering system in advance, and organize materials as you go to avoid unwieldy backlogs or even loss or subsequent mislabeling of materials. Consider establishing some of your file folders in advance to facilitate the handling of your paperwork. Sample file headings might include: Planning, Collected Publications and Ephemera, Letters, Budget, Equipment, Tape Logs, Photo Logs, Field Notes, Consent Forms, Maps, and Publicity. Administrative files should be preserved, since they include information on origins, goals, and overall planning and carrying-out of the project.

Image: Stephanie Hall
Archivist Stephanie Hall carefully places color slides from the American Folklife Center’s collections in preservation housing for storage in the Archive of Folk Culture. Photo 1995 by James Hardin

If you plan to donate the collection to an archival institution or use it for your own long-term research, it is a good idea to store your paper and printed materials in acid-free folders, which you label and number consecutively. A list or inventory of all components of the collection, along with a brief description of the project -- prepared while the goals and activities of the project are fresh in your memory -- will prove helpful as years pass and will be indispensable to the archivist or librarian who might catalog the materials.

Proper management of project materials involves time, attention, and patience. Careful labeling and logging and the systematic assignment of numbers for cross-referencing purposes, however mundane the tasks may be, will pay off by rendering your materials accessible and useful.

Professional archivists and folklorists with specialized experience and interest in archival techniques should be consulted whenever necessary. For larger projects, consulting fees should be considered in fiscal planning and grant requests. Software packages designed to store and retrieve vast amounts of data, are now available. They render the tasks of typing, indexing, cross referencing, and gaining access to research data much easier.

For a list of folklife institutions, archives, and programs, see Folklife Sourcebook, online at
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