Common Folklore Archiving Issues and Selected Resources

Collections Need A Permanent Archival Home

Folklorists often accumulate large collections of ethnographic materials in their home offices, from independent research and also public folklore survey work. Sometimes original documentation created through public folklore projects is not archivally curated; even when placed in archives, it may not be processed or readily accessible to the public. In addition, established archives may not be receptive to acquiring folklore documentation in the first place, and when they do acquire it, the material may be low on the agenda for processing and access.

What is a folklorist to do, as s/he acquires and manages ethnographic documentation, or considers donating it to a prospective archives?


 Seek Partnerships with Existing Repositories

 Build Your Own Archives

Steve Green of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada addresses the steps necessary to do this in two hand-outs made available at the American Folklore Society 2005 meeting in Atlanta:

Enlist Trained Archivists

Collections Need Significant Processing and Preservation Work

Whether in private possession or in an archives, ethnographic materials often are inadequately organized, labeled, described, or cared for physically. By acquainting themselves with common best practices, and curating their own collections accordingly, folklorists can preserve their collections more effectively, and prepare them for an archives and public access.

Organize Materials

 Describe Contents and Extent

Evaluate Condition

Examples from the “Survey of Public Folklore in the Upper Midwest” report include such statements as: “Aging audio formats, manuscript materials contain metal and lack acid-free folders, slides stored in archival-quality sleeves within three-ring binders.” “Video showing some signs of deterioration, mildew, non-acid free storage.” “Aging audio formats. Unprocessed collections contain brittle paper, newsprint photographs, bent negatives, and metal staples and paper clips.”

Salvage and Preserve

  • The Library of Congress provides advice on the care of books, photos, videos, and other media.
  • Additional sources of preservation information are listed in problem area 3 in this document.

Collections Need Knowledge of Current Preservation Methods for Varied Formats

Folklorists generate ethnographic documentation in many formats, so the typical multi-format folklore collection includes, besides paper, media such as sound recordings, video recordings, and photographs in older analog and newer digital versions. As preservation methodologies vary by media and change with new technologies, care for such a collection can be complex, expensive, and changeable. Folklorists can steward their collections by staying abreast of contemporary preservation practices related to the kinds of media and equipment they use for documentation.

Research Varied Solutions

Consider Strategic Digital Reproduction and Online Posting

Collections Are Not Publicly Accessible

Potential users of folklore documentation face difficulties both in learning of the existence of documentation and then in gaining access to it. The best help is a live archivist or reference librarian who can help anyone locate archival materials at particular repositories through digital technology and older systems. They also can orient users to internet tools for locating collections and particular subject matter.

Understand the Problem

When documentation remains in private possession, access is difficult. But even documentation in an official archives often remains unorganized and uncataloged and therefore cannot be found or has restrictions on availability. The following guidelines introduce collections holders to some of the critical issues regarding collections description and access:

Review Best Practices Recommendations

Collections Lack Permissions

Release forms are not always available for folklore documentation, and even when present, they seldom address provisions for subsequent uses such as Internet publishing. What does someone do who wishes to use documentary material for which release forms are inadequate or not present?

Understand the Legalities

  • A succinct summary of oral history interview legal issues is in the “Preparing legal documents” section of “Introduction to Oral History,” a Baylor University Institute for Oral History Workshop on the Web.
  • A lengthier treatment of this topic is on the United Kingdom’s Oral History Society website: “Is your oral history legal and ethical?” by Alan Ward.

Prepare Needed Forms for Current Projects

Some sample release forms:

Contact Wily Veterans