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The New York Folklore Society has taken a leadership role in the area of folklore collections and archives.



Folk Archives Project

Folklorists and other cultural specialists and dedicated members of communities and groups have been bringing to light an enormous range of cultural expressions that have been little known outside the communities—sometimes even the families—where they were created. By recording stories and songs, interviewing the bearers of family and community traditions, documenting festivals, family and community rituals, performances, objects of beauty and use and the like on tape or film, and writing about their observations, they have been creating a unique and priceless documentary heritage of people’s living traditions. This documentation can and should become an enduring resource for generations to come.

But the documentary heritage is a delicate and fragile thing, far more so than the traditions it documents. If not properly cared for (preserved and appropriately stored), paper, film, tape, or computer disks can deteriorate and become useless or be destroyed altogether. And if not properly administered (labeled, filed, cataloged, described) precious documents and the information contained in them can be lost for good, because no one knows they exist or where they are.

The overall goals of the Folk Archives Project:
  1. That the leaders and rank-and-file in underdocumented groups and communities of New York State will understand the importance of—and have the skills and resources necessary for—documenting their traditional culture and preserving and making their cultural documentation accessible for future generations;

  2. That the importance of archival treatment of folklore collections will be recognized by both the archives and folklore fields and their sponsoring institutions so that organizational missions and collecting policies can be expanded to embrace folklore archives, and adequate organizational resources can be allocated to them. In other words, people need to understand that folklore documentation is an important part of the historical record and must be preserved and made accessible.

Phase I— Assessment and Planning

Beginning in 1991, with funding from the New York State Documentary Heritage Program, (DHP) the New York Folklore Society began a project to assess the condition and location of archives throughout the state. Many of these collections were in locations or situations that made them inaccessible to researchers and others who might find them important for the work they were pursuing. In Phase I of the project, data were gathered by means of a survey instrument mailed to 1,300 potential collection holders which yielded 90 positive responses; the survey was updated in 1995, resulting in the addition of 37 collections. From this project the New York Folklore Society produced a 54-page report, Folklore Archives and the Documentary Heritage of New York State, that has guided the project in subsequent years; established a database of folk archival collections in the State; and set up the collaborative task force of folklorists and archivists that carried out the next phase.

Phase II— Folklorist-Archivist Dialogue

Phase II, a folklorist-archivist dialogue (1992–1993) concentrated on implementing two of the most fundamental of the recommendations:
  1. that folklorists and archivists begin learning more about each other’s disciplines (theoretical frameworks, methods, concepts, and language), through intensive task force meetings, pilot workshops, and production of a manual; and

  2. that we develop tools (the manual and collecting forms) that would encourage folklorists in the field to document their collections in ways that would be efficient, follow a standard format, and be easily converted by an archivist into MARC-AMC format.
Responding to the needs of the field, the New York Folklore Society has worked closely with archivists to produce manuals outlining the preferred methods of arranging and describing the materials, as well as to match endangered collections with proper repositories.Working with Folk Materials in New York State: A Manual for Folklorists and Archivists, (1994) which is distributed by us and by the Society of American Archivists won the Brenda McCallum Prize from the Archives and Libraries Section of the American Folklore Society in 1995 “for exceptional work dealing with folklife archives or the collection, organization, and management of folklife materials.” Over 40 archivists and folklorists attended workshops introducing them to the disciplines of folklores and archives. Many of the folklorists are now routinely using the collecting forms and methods from the manual in their fieldwork.

Phase III— Education and Exploration

In the third phase of the archives project, archivist/folklorist teams surveyed the entire state, region by region, beginning in the Capital District, North Country, and New York City (1994–95), then Central and Western New York (1995-96), and Southeastern New York and Long Island (1996-97). The teams identified collections that are important and were at risk and worked to educate collection holders and potential folklore repositories alike about the importance of the materials and explore with them the various options for improving the care, accessibility, and use of the collections.

In some cases, the teams were able to match collections with potential regional repositories that are interested in initiating or augmenting holdings in folklore and initiate dialogue or negotiations between the parties. In three cases so far, the project resulted in collections being donated to secure repositories: The Rensselaer County Council for the Arts (now known as The Arts Center of the Capital Region) donated its collection of folk arts documentation to the Rensselaer County Historical Society (RCHS); a small but important multi-county collection was transferred from the Albany-Schenectady League of Arts to RCCA (it will be included in the RCHS collection); and Bruce Buckley’s large collection (1,500-2,000 audio and video tapes; 200,000 slides; 120-125 Hollinger boxes of manuscripts and some ephemera) is being donated to the New York State Library.

Phase IV— Guidelines for Arrangement and Description

Recognizing the particular and challenging problems archivists face when dealing with folklore collections, the NYFS secured funding in 1996 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to develop and publish Guidelines for the Arrangement and Description of Archival Folklore Materials, a cataloging manual for use in New York and throughout the country. The resulting manual, Folklore in Archives co-authored by Karen Taussig-Lux and James Corsaro, was published in 1998. In 1999, this manual received the Brenda McCallum Prize of the Archives and Libraries Section of the American Folklore Society.

Phase V— Statewide Access

Phase V of the archives project had as its concern the statewide access to folklore archives. Also, as a part of this phase, two archivist/folklorist teams provided expert guidance and facilitation for the development and implementation of plans to make 10 especially significant folklore collections accessible to community and scholarly researchers statewide. In addition, the New York City team sought professional archives to serve as repositories for current and future folklore collections in New York City.

Transfer to the State Library of a substantial collection of tapes and papers (approximately 150 cubic feet) belonging to Vaughn and George Ward began in early 1998. The collections of the Delaware County Historical Association (41 cubic feet) and Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (ca. 25 cubic feet of paper records; 6,000 slides and photographs; 200 audio and video recordings) will have series-level descriptions and finding aids completed by the end of the project. The collections of City Lore (121 cubic feet) and photographer Martha Cooper (10,000 images, 74 cubic feet), two of the largest and most important folklore collections in New York City, received professional archival attention for the first time, including development of collection-level descriptions and written plans. City Lore applied to DHP to continue the work on both collections under this project.

To date, the project has developed an effective model for collaboration between the professional disciplines of folklore and archives; it has raised the overall awareness of and sensitivity to the importance of folklore records and their archival care and management among both professional communities; and it has completed or launched a score of specific projects dealing with particular folklore collections—in some cases, transfer of records is complete; in others transfer of records or the improvement of facilities and skills for managing records in situ is under way.

On October 14, 1997, the Board of Regents and the State Archives and Records Administration presented the New York Folklore Society with the 1997 William Hoyt Advocacy Award “for its exemplary leadership and initiative in raising the consciousness of the folklore and historical records communities to the archival value of folklore materials.” The award is named after the late Assemblyman William Hoyt from Buffalo, who was a staunch supporter of archives and the arts in New York.

Cover of Folklore in Archives

Folklore in Archives:
A Guide to Describing
Folklore and Folklife Materials

by James Corsaro and Karen Taussig-Lux
Published in December, 1998,
by the New York Folklore Society
Looseleaf binder, 156 pages

You need Folklore in Archives if
  • you are an archivist, librarian, curator, or collections manager, and
  • you are responsible for arranging, describing, or caring for folklore collections or other collections that contain folklore materials, or
  • you are a folklorist or other cultural specialist or a community member who has folklore materials and wants to work with an archivist to ensure the preservation and accessibility of your collection.
“A large and growing body of folklore collections will come under archival care in the next several decades. Folklore materials present unique challenges to archivists seeking to incorporate them into archival repositories and databases. This book describes the issues involved in archival management of folklore materials and offers guidelines to assist archivists and others who care for such collections.”— from the Introduction

Folklore in Archives contains the following main sections:
  • What are Folklore and Folklife?

  • Archival Issues Related to Folklore Materials

  • Negotiating Donations and Transferring Records

  • Arranging Folklore Collections

  • Describing Folklore Collections

  • Cataloging Rules for Folklore Materials

  • Glossaries of folklore and archives

Folklore in Archives is the companion piece and sequel to Working with Folk Materials in New York State: A Manual for Folklorists and Archivists published in 1994. Working offers a basic introduction to the fields of folklore and archives, explores some of the key issues archivists and folklorists face as they begin to work together, and offers various sample forms and other resources. Folklore in Archives is the essential tool for the archivist who must arrange and describe folklore collections.

Cover of  Working with Folk Materials in New York State

A Manual for Folklorists and Archivists

John Suter, editor

To order these publications, visit our on-line gallery shop’s bookstore.

The Folk Archives Project is made possible by grants from the New York State Documentary Heritage Program and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Additional funding has been provided by a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts/New York Council for the Arts Technology Initiative.

NEW YORK FOLKLORE SOCIETY ♦ 129 Jay Street ♦ Schenectady, NY 12305 ♦ 518.346.7008 ♦ Fax 518.346.6617 ♦ nyfs@nyfolklore.org