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

What to Collect

Image: Marilyn Bañuelos (right) photographs Connie Romero as she interviews rancher Corpus Gallegos on the vega Marilyn Bañuelos (right) photographs Connie Romero as she interviews rancher Corpus Gallegos on the vega, a publicly owned piece of grazing land in San Luis, Colorado, during a July 1994 field documentation training school jointly sponsored by the American Folklife Center, Colorado College, and the Center for Regional Studies of the University of New Mexico. Photo by James Hardin

We are accustomed to thinking of scholarly work as taking place in a library, and the library is often the first stop as either the amateur or the professional folklorist begins his or her investigation. In the library, as well as on the Internet, in museums, archives, private collections, and other repositories, you will find information on what other researchers have discovered about your topic of interest. There you will also find guides such as maps, local histories, and directories for conducting your own research. You may also find leads for people to interview. The scholarly reports and publications from other researchers will help you avoid repeating research that has already been done and provide a context within which it is possible to ask new and informed questions.

Fieldwork, on the other hand, is scholarly work that requires firsthand observation -- recording or documenting what you see and hear in a particular setting, whether that be a rural farming community or a city neighborhood, a local fish market or a grandmother's living room. It means gathering together for analysis the raw material that may one day find its way into a library or museum, to be used by future scholars or by the original researcher to produce an essay, book, exhibit, or an online presentation.

Image: Henrietta Yurchenco and friend
Henrietta Yurchenco (right), one of the many extraordinary collectors whose fieldwork documentation is included in the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress. She is shown here in the 1970s with a member of the Methodist Church that served as a focus of her research among the African American Gullah-speakers of John's Island, South Carolina. American Folklife Center photo by David Lewiston

The beginning of any research project, whether in the library or in the field, is a statement of purpose that can be expressed in a few sentences. It is important to develop that statement carefully since it may serve as a way to introduce yourself to both community members and research and reference librarians assisting you in preliminary, pre-fieldwork preparation. Each time you visit a research facility or conduct an interview, be prepared to explain the purpose of your project. In addition, you will want to explain why you are doing it; if applicable, what your school or institutional affiliation is; and how the information you collect will be used.

It is helpful to think of a field project in three parts. The three are interdependent and equally important, and each part will be addressed in this pamphlet:

1. Background research and preparation

2. The fieldwork itself

3. Organizing and preparing the material for archival preservation

There are many possible subjects for a folklife project, such as one group's ethnic heritage, a children's game, or local farming or maritime traditions. When the project is under way, you will discover that sub-topics emerge. The games of a particular schoolyard, for example, may include counting-out rhymes, songs, a strategy for play, and material artifacts.

To indicate the breadth of possibilities for folklife research, a partial list of the many kinds of traditional activities appears below. All of the items are regarded by folklorists as expressions of traditional culture. Any one of them might be the focus of a folklife project, or a project may include several of them in combination.

To view examples of professional documentation projects in the American Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture visit our site online at "Collections Available Online."

Oral and Musical Traditions

Spoken Word: tall tales, legends, humorous stories, personal experience stories, proverbs, riddles, toasts and testimonies, mnemonic devices (rhymes), nursery and game rhymes, speech play, ritual insults, jokes, family histories, dialect and idiomatic speech, sermons
Song: ballads, children's songs, work songs, blues, sea shanties, ethnic songs, play-party and game songs
Music: fiddle tunes, drumming, yodeling, whistling
Dance: clogging, square dance, round dance, buck dance, ethnic dance
Game, Play, and Strategy: tag games, guessing games, seeking games, competitive games (dueling, daring, racing), game strategy (rules and techniques), acting, pretending

Material Culture

Artifacts: houses, outbuildings, barns, boats, floor plans, roofing materials, masonry, wall and fence constructions, tools and implements
The Cultural Landscape: wall and fence placement, farm planning, farming techniques, rural and urban use of land and space, physical and economic boundaries of regions and neighborhoods
Crafts and Trades: boat building, blacksmithing, coal mining, tool making, papercutting, pottery, sailmaking, rope making, weaving, straw work, animal trapping
Folk Art: graphic arts, furniture decoration, embroidery, beadwork, wood carving, jewelry making, yard and garden decoration

Family Life

Image: Wedding of Cambodian couple in Lowell, MA
The wedding of Cambodians Sopheap Muth and Pen Hing at the home of Pen Hing's mother, Mrs. Chounn Chen, in Lowell, Massachusetts, September 1987. New ethnic immigrants bring a wealth of traditions to the United States. Some of these traditions are maintained, some are lost, and some take new forms in their new settings. From the American Folklife Center's Lowell Folklife Project. Photo by John Lueders-Booth

Traditions and Customs
Religious observations
Rites of passage: birth, birthdays, baptism, marriage, funerals


Food preparation and recipes
Canning and curing processes
Traditional meal preparation
Religious or symbolic uses for food


Folk Medicine
Religious practices
Luck and magic

Festivals, Drama, Ritual

Seasonal and calendrical events
Saints and nameday celebrations
Feast days
Market days
Community festivals and pageants

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  April 27, 2005
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