Exploring archival collections: The American Folklife Center

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress preserves records of American folklife. The Center both conducts and facilitates research on folklife and culture. Materials include songs, stories, images and documents associated with ethnographic fieldwork. The Center takes care of over 6 million items dating from the 1890s to the present. Winick and Bartis (2016) point out that ethnographic fieldwork conducted for gaining information about folklife is similar to that of cultural anthropology, with the focus being on “creative expressions performances, art forms, and beliefs” (p. 5).

Winick and Bartis’ (2016) guide provides practical steps to designing and conducting a study, as well as tips for archiving and indexing materials. Sample forms are also included in the guide (e.g., audio and videorecording logs). Materials are also found at the American Folklife Center’s website.

What materials can researchers access at The American Folklife Center?

Folklife collections may be accessed by state, territory, US trusts and the District of Columbia:


For a list of online collections, see:


Many materials are digitized, and the Center is continually adding to their digital collections. Unlike ethnographic work conducted in other fields, such as anthropology, sociology or education, participants of studies in folklore are not necessarily anonymized. Thus, images and contributors to various collections are frequently named. Therefore, the Center provides information on how cultural documentation is undertaken, and includes the kinds of release forms needed in this work. For example, we can see photos of the performers recorded during an expedition in the 1930s in which Alan Lomax, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston recorded folk musicians in the southern United States and the Bahamas. Some of the performers are named, while others’ names were not recorded at the time. Music and songs collected by folklorists have also been released on records and CDs (e.g., see the American Folklife Center publications as well as the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings https://folkways.si.edu/), enabling us to learn about the variants of songs recorded in different regions and time periods with different singers.

If you are visiting the Washington DC you may want to check out the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. To access the materials at the center , one has to be prepared and have done some preliminary research. You may not get very far if you simply walk in! Since much material is digitized and available online, it is worthwhile spending time on the Center’s website so that you will be able to talk to the archivists at the Center about your research interests to gain guidance as to what materials you might look at. Once you have gained familiarity with the materials – you might find that you need to visit some of the other archival collections housed in the Library of Congress. If you don’t have time to do archival research during your visit, you can still enjoy a tour of the Library of Congress and visit some of the exhibits. And if you are not in Washington DC, you can also visit the many digitized items housed in the American Folklife Center in addition to other collections. There are many fascinating collections available for researchers.

Kathy Roulston


Winick, S. & Bartis, P. (2016). Folklife and fieldwork: An introduction to cultural documentation. Washington DC: Library of Congress


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