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What is an Ethnographic Field Collection?

An ethnographic field collection is a multi-format, unpublished group of materials gathered and organized by an anthropologist, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, or other cultural researcher to document human life and traditions. It is a unique created work brought together through the intentions and activities of the collector. An ethnographic field collection may bring together materials from a wide range of formats, including sound recordings, drawings, photographs, fieldnotes, and correspondence. Although each item in an ethnographic field collection may have individual value, it gains added significance when viewed in the context of the other materials gathered by the collector in interaction with the people and activities being documented. The concept of unity imposed by the collector on a group of materials is central to understanding what constitutes such a collection.

In the words of the Folklife Center's reference librarian, Gerald E. Parsons:

"Ethnographic collections of even the most informal sort come into being through a different process [than accumulations of personal papers]. The fieldworker takes a photograph of a musical instrument, makes a sound recording of it being played, and jots down notes on the recollections of a virtuoso player because the fieldworker has determined that photographs, sound recordings, and written text must be yoked together to fully represent the performance. Even if there is no intent to publish the documentation, there is, in every ethnographic collection, a conscious weaving together of different representational media to achieve a rounded statement. There is, in short, something that looks like authorship even though there may be no publication." (Memo to the American Folklife Center Board of Trustees, Jan. 7, 1991)

Presentations of ethnographic collections using hypermedia make it possible for researchers to examine the various materials together.

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  April 27, 2005
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