Archiving Folklore Collections: Who’s in Charge?

It’s been a long time in the works, but last week, the archival collection of the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program was transferred to the Massachusetts State Archives. A little back story is in order.

For many folklorists employed at state arts agencies, humanities councils, museums, and non-profit organizations, fieldwork is an ongoing part of our work. Recording in sound, image, and writing, we document vernacular music, dance, crafts, material culture, and traditional arts associated with annual celebrations and religious belief. Fieldwork is essential to curating exhibitions and producing festivals, publications, and digital media — all ways of sharing our work with the public. Field research helps us recruit grant applicants and evaluate the impact of our grant giving.

The primary sources generated by fieldwork provide a unique and important record of expressive folk culture. But what happens to all these interviews, recordings, and images? My guess is that these materials are handled in a myriad of ways, many of which are not up to the standards of archival best practice.


Although I’ve employed archival preservation methods, including the use of chemically inert plastic sleeves for slides and negatives and acid-free, archival grade folders for print materials, evolving technology has changed the way we collect. Caring responsibly for digitally born materials, which we began collecting in 2008, is more of a challenge. We lack trained staff dedicated to audio preservation, quality analog playback and digital conversion equipment, and large-scale information technology support. We store field-generated audio and images on writable Compact Discs and external hard drives, rather than on redundant file storage devices.

Something needed to be done to safeguard our archival holdings. So a year ago, I reached out to colleagues and archivists around the country with similar collections who specialize in managing folk cultural archival collections. Folklorist/archivists Steve Green and Andy Kolovos were incredibly helpful. With their input, I sought out a mutually beneficial partnership with a repository that has both trained staff and a stated mission supporting preservation and access.

Along the way, I was inspired by news of state arts agencies in Alabama, Maryland, Georgia, and Pennsylvania who were successful in brokering partnerships to guarantee preservation of their folk archival collections.

By the end of the year, two repositories had come forward: The Massachusetts State Archives and the Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. After many emails, phone conversations, and meetings, we are on our way. The two institutions will partner in digitizing, preparing metadata, and producing a multi-media finding aid for the web. I’m pleased to be working with Veronica Martzhal, Digital Archivist at the State Archives and Rob Cox, Head Archivist at U Mass’s Special Collections and University Archives.

Archives_Maggie loading cassettes

In February, I spent a few days boxing up analog and digital audio recordings, color slides, black & white negatives, digital images, and manuscript materials (field notes, transcriptions, release forms, and ephemera). Twenty boxes in all. This hybrid collection dates back to 1999, when the archive was established. The physical transfer is the first tangible step in the process of ensuring that this unique collection of primary source materials will be professionally preserved, digitized, and eventually made accessible via a digital library.

On the day of the transfer, it was Mike Farley who did most of the heavy lifting. Acquisitions Archivist Wallace Dailey oversaw the move.

Archives_Mike Farley loading dolly

Archives_Mike loading truck

Archives_driving away

Next steps will be for State Archive staff to begin the process of digitizing the collection. The priority will be to address deterioration and format obsolescence. I plan on working with archive staff to prepare metadata for the collection in order to create an online catalog. To be continued . . .







Saving Stuff: Exploring a Repository for our Archival Collection

Six years ago, I posted a blog  commentary about how the world of archiving folklore fieldwork was changing. I was concerned about the challenges of keeping “born digital” items safe, and I remain concerned. Since 2008, we have switched exclusively to using digital devices (cameras, audio recorders) in our field research. That means that all new field-generated audio and visual data is captured in bits and preserved on DVD discs, SD cards, and external computer hard drives.

Fuji film cannister  Box of Kodachrome slide film       arrow pointing right      archival DVD disc

Cassette and DAT magnetic tape       arrow pointing right       2 GB Sandisks

The responsibility of preserving archival collections and making them accessible was, frankly, a lot simpler in the pre-digital age. Tangible items in a collection — paper, prints, film, and  magnetic audio tape — are physical things that take kindly to acid-free file folders, chemically inert plastic sleeves, and Hollinger boxes. But our collection is comprised of both physical and born digital materials. We have manuscript materials (field notes, transcriptions of audio recorded interviews, release forms, and ephemera) analog and digital audio field recordings, color slides, black and white negatives, and digital images. From the creation of the archive in 1999, we have employed archival preservation methods for the tangible items; caring responsibly for digitally born materials is more of a challenge. We store field-generated audio (.wav files) and images (.tiff) on writable compact discs and external hard drives, rather than on redundant file storage servers, as is recommended by archivists. Like the majority of public folklore programs around the country with archival collections, we lack trained staff dedicated to audio preservation, quality analog playback and digital conversion equipment, and large-scale information technology support.


The issue at hand is how to ensure long term access to and preservation of this ever growing folk archival collection.

Storage containers for digital content

We are essentially ready to explore some kind of mutually beneficial partnership with a university special collections or other repository that has both trained staff and a stated mission supporting preservation and access.

For advice, I’ve reached out to individual archivists, like Steve Green of the Western Folklife Center Archive, who has been tremendously helpful, and other state folklorists who have made progress securing their own archival collections like Joey Brackner at the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Mary Allison Haynie at the Alabama Folklife Association, Wayne Jones, Karen Paty, and Julianne Carroll who are leading the effort to preserve the Georgia Folklife Program’s collection; and Cliff Murphy at Maryland Traditions who helped facilitate the Maryland’s Folklife Program archives move to UMBC.

Closer to home is Dr. Jack Warner, State Archivist and the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board who reviewed our situation. There are some promising partnerships on the horizon.  We will keep you posted on any new developments.



From Intern to State Folklorist and Published Author

It was a decade ago that CliffMurphy interned with the MCC’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program. A graduate student in ethnomusicology at Brown University at the time, Cliff was deep into his research on New England’s Country and Western music. I was fortunate to travel with him on a few of the many interviews he conducted with Massachusetts musicians — key figures like Georgia Mae Harp, “Jimmie Cal” Calderone, and yodelling Kenny Roberts.

Georgia Mae Harp with her signature white guitar Kenny Roberts album cover

His wonderful new book, Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England was recently published by the University of Illinois Press. Not only is it an engaging and informative read, the book breaks new ground in country music scholarship by challenging the notion that country music is inherently southern.  New England Country and Western music is not the same thing as the country music heard across New England on country format radio. It is a homegrown, working-class regional music with deep roots. Read this book and you come to know a once vibrant regional music virtually ignored by the country music industry. Prior to the 1960s, talented performers dressed in country western garb, “barnstormed” their way across New England, doing live radio shows, performing community concerts, and playing for social dances.  New England’s multi-ethnic demographic makeup helped create a distinctive style of country music.

YankeeTwang book cover

We are fortunate to have had Cliff Murphy delve deep into one of New England’s core music traditions at a time when many of its exemplary performers were still alive. The documentary work Cliff did in Massachusetts is now safely archived in the MCC’s traditional Arts Archive. Cliff has since gone on to be the Director of Maryland Traditions, the folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council. Massachusett’s loss is Maryland’s gain.

Listen to WBUR’s story about Cliff and Yankee Twang here

“The Beautiful Music All Around Us”

Stephen Wade holding a copy of his book

Last week I had the good fortune of introducing Stephen Wade at the Cambridge Forum in Harvard Square. Like an archaeologist revisiting a dig site 75 years later, Wade went back to 13 Southern towns where folklorists working for the Library of Congress had recorded locally known singers and musicians.  These field recordings went on to become iconic of Southern old time banjo and fiddle music, blues, children’s lore, cowboy songs, and other forms of American folk music.

William Stepp on horseback

In addition to doing some serious library research, Wade was able to track down living relatives or acquaintances, finding himself in places where everyday people made music:  living rooms, front porches, church pews, prisons, and dance halls. During his November 13 presentation in Cambridge, he told stories from his travels in researching and writing The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. He also performed on a number of banjos, including one originally belonging to musician Hobart Smith. Take a look and listen —


Getting your fabulous folk content to an online audience

You know you have great content – it’s the folklorist’s stock in trade. But getting your folklore content to an online audience and engaging repeat visitors can be a challenge. Do you have questions about the technical, geeky side of things? Want ideas for how to design, structure, and then market your folk web site/exhibit/etc.?

If so, consider registering for the South Arts webinar on June 16, 2011 covering best practices for getting your folk content to an online audience. Folklorist Maggie Holtzberg and MCC Technology Project Manager Dawn Heinen will present. Topics will include: Leveraging a physical exhibition into an online presence, designing and implementing the user experience, and bringing it all to market.

This South Arts project is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Foodways Lectures, Film at Lowell National Historical Park

It’s not every day that someone’s kitchen becomes a museum exhibit. But then again, Julia Child is not your every day cook.  When she relocated from Cambrdige to California, her kitchen – the cabinets, appliances, utensils, pots, and pans – found a new home at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The exhibit remains popular with visitors since it opened in 2002.  


To explore the kitchen’s journey to the Smithsonian, join us on Friday April 30 for a talk by Dr. Rayna Green, folklorist and Smithsonian’s curator of Julia Child’s kitchen. She will also touch upon the French Chef’s impact on the home cook in the 1960s and 70s through her cookbooks and her legendary television show produced by Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. The program is free and will be offered in the auditorium of the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center, 246 Market Street,  at 7:30 pm.

In case you missed it, consider joining us on Tuesday, April 27 for Julie and Julia. The feature film (2009) is a comedy-drama written and directed by Nora Ephron. The film depicts events in the life of Julia Child in the early years in her culinary career, contrasting her life with Julie Powell who aspires to cook all 524 recipes from Child’s cookbook during a single year, a challenge she described on her popular blog that would make her a published author. Being screened in partnership with the Lowell Film Collaborative, the film will be shown at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center,246 Market Street, at 6:30 pm. The film is free.

Native American Foodways in New England, May 1

On May 1, Dr. Rayna Green will give a presentation on Native American foodways of New England. She will provide a broad overview of Native foodways in New England (coastal cultures versus inland, seasonal food, agriculture, etc.) and talk about the impact of Native American foodways on what some would define as “traditional” New England cuisine. This free presentation will be offered at 1:30 pm in the Boott Event Center located on the second floor of the Boott Cotton Museum at Lowell National Historical Park, 115 John Street.


This trio of events inaugurates a new series of foodways programming at Lowell National Historical Park.

A Folklorist’s Folklorist: Bess L. Hawes (1921-2009)


Addressing the American Folklore Society at the 1988 Centennial Meetings, Bess Lomax Hawes told a story about doing fieldwork, the sine qua non of the folklore profession. When she was teaching years ago, a student of hers had done an excellent term paper based on some folk curing beliefs which he had collected from an old lady in his neighborhood. By semester’s end he complained, “You taught me all about how to collect, Mrs. Hawes. What you didn’t teach me was how to stop collecting. That old lady lives on my block and every night when I come home, she runs out on the porch and says, ‘Hey boy, I just remembered another one!’  I keep trying to explain to her that my project is all finished, but she just won’t stop, and I’m starting to go up the alley when I go home just so I won’t run into her.”

“My dear young man,” Bess responded,  “welcome to the grown-up world. It’s a place where real actions have real results, where real people have real feelings as well as real information. And it’s a place where old ladies actually think that people who say they are interested in what they know really are interested, and issues like course requirements and semesters and quarters are really irrelevant. You’ve gotten your A. Now you start to pay back.” (excerpt taken from Public Folkore, edited by Robert Baron and Nicholas R. Spitzer, 1992, page 68.)

Bess Lomax Hawes, a folklorist of national renown, died last Friday. Today’s Boston Globe pays tribute to her and the little piece of local folklore she left behind. During the 1940s, while raising her family in Cambridge, Bess sang with local folk groups and tried her hand at songwriting. Today’s Boston Globe story focuses on “Charlie and the MTA,” a song Bess co-wrote with her friend Jacqueline Steiner. The political ditty poked fun at the Massachusetts Transit Authority’s complicated fare system and went on to become a hit.

In addition to a career as a performer and teacher, Bess Lomax Hawes was a remarkably effective arts administrator. Rocco Landesman, current Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, reminds us that, during her 16-year tenure as Director of the NEA’s Folk & Traditional Arts Program, Hawes inspired her colleagues to re-imagine how a federal agency might serve often overlooked artists and communities across the nation. Hawes was largely responsible for creating this country’s version of the Japanese Living National Treasures program. The first National Heritage Fellowships were awarded in 1982 and they continue to be the country’s highest honor awarded to individual artists working in the traditional arts.

Finding, documenting, presenting, and honoring traditional artists is work that is carried out at the grassroots level. Bess was the driving force behind establishing the network of public folklorists we have in the United States today. My colleague Jeff Titon recalls the United States map Bess kept in her office: “Whenever a folklorist got a job in one of those states, a colored push pin went into the location. She used to point to the map with great pride as the number of pins, and states, and public folklorists, increased. It was as if this gentle lady was mapping an occupying army moving into positions around the country.”

Indeed it was Bess who took Jeff aside in the early 1980s and began asking him why there wasn’t a position for a state folklorist in Massachusetts. Jeff writes, “It wasn’t long before Jane Beck [founder of the  Vermont Folklife Center] and I were lobbying at the state arts council, telling them that the NEA would fund a position for a state folk arts coordinator for three years, and that when the arts council saw how valuable it would be to have one, they would surely pick up the funding from then on. . . That is how the position that Maggie Holtzberg now holds with the Massachusetts Cultural Council originated. The pattern had been established before Massachusetts, and it was repeated in state after state.”

Many public folklorists, like myself, who were lucky enough to enter the field in the 1980s, were mentored by Bess.  We looked to her for advice and wisdom. This is why, during the past few days, my email box has been overflowing with “Bess stories” — moving memories of this pioneering, principled, formidable, feisty, fun-spirited woman. We are often reminded of her in our daily work and will miss her presence in the world profoundly.

That’s a familiar face . . .

Guest blog from folklorist Millie Rahn:

Old friends Betsy Siggins, Bob Dylan, and Maria Muldaur backstage at the Wang Theatre, Boston, Nov. 15, 2009. Betsy is the founder of the New England Folk Music Archives and was a mainstay of the Club 47 in the '60s. Photo courtesy of Siggins Collection, New England Folk Music Archives.

The New England Folk Music Archives, based in Cambridge, was launched earlier this year with collections that reach well back into the last century.  Some of the Archives’ strongest collections have to do with the folk revival of the late 1950s and 1960s in and around Cambridge and Boston.  But the roots of the music  scene, then and now, reach well back into the 19th century and came out of a long, local tradition of interest

in folk music, folksong collecting, and cultural revivals.


Club 47, considered the epicenter of the revival, started as a jazz venue and coffeehouse in 1958, but soon joined the folk music boom. Club 47 launched regional performers such as Joan Baez, the Charles River Valley Boys, Eric von Schmidt, Tom Rush, and the Kweskin Jug Band, who mined many early recordings and song collections. Others like Jackie Washington and Taj Mahal drew on their families’ Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and African-American traditions.  Club 47 also introduced audiences to earlier generations of southern roots artists from the 1920s and 1930s such as Maybelle Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Bill Monroe, and Muddy Waters.

During the month of November, the New England Folk Music Archives has partnered with the Harvard Square Business Association and its members to exhibit photographs and memorabilia from the collections in store windows and restaurants around the Square.

This Sunday, November 22 at 7 p.m. the Brattle Theatre will have a rare screening of Festival!, one of the essential documentaries of the early Newport folk festivals, with a reception with filmmaker Murray Lerner afterwards.

Recorded sound from so long ago

It’s chilling to listen to – the actual voice of Fountain Hughes, a former slave from Charlottesville, Virginia, whose grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Remarkably, the Library of Congress has a recording of an interview done with Mr. Hughes as part of a WPA project to record oral histories and interviews with African Americans who endured slavery. The American Folklife Center recently broadcast a podcast that brings to this first-person account to life.

Keeping Digital Media Safe

Have you made the move from slides to digital images? Or from audio tapes to compact flash drives? Do you think about how best to ensure the safety of these “born digital” multimedia files? They seem so ephemeral . . .

Until fairly recently, folklorists only had to deal with the preservation of tangible field-recorded materials. Here at the MCC, our traditional arts archive is primarily made up of physical things (negatives and slides, printed photographs, magnetic audiotape, and printed matter) that take up space on shelves or in file cabinet drawers. Best practices for preserving and providing access to these types of materials were established long ago (e.g., acid-free paper, climate and humidity control, archival sleeves for slides and negatives). But standards are still being debated for the preservation of digital objects.

Advances in technology have brought us a whole new generation of affordable field-recording equipment which is smaller, lighter, and simpler to use. We can record an interview using a teensy digital recorder that captures sound on a compact flash card. We come back from the field and transfer images from a digital camera onto a computer or external hard drive, with no wait for developing or processing. The images and recordings are instantly accessible for review, editing, and posting on the web. Storage takes up much less physical space. Yet, when it comes to preserving these digital multimedia files, there is something unsettling about moving away from the physical film or magnetic tape. How do we ensure precious digital materials will be accessible over time?

With issues of this sort on my mind, I was fortunate to attend a workshop on preserving digital multimedia files last week at the Vermont Folklife Center. In fact, folklorists around the country expressed their disappointment in not being able to attend. Andy Kovolos, the center’s archivist, shared tips on the basics of digital preservation, including file formats for storing digital photographs and audio, the challenges presented by digital video, and ways to keep good track of your materials.

So, here are a few takeaways:

Multiple copies of files in varying formats keeps material safe. For example, store a recent field recording or photo shoot in several places: on a server, on two external hard drives, and on a CD.

Don’t write on a CD! The top surface of the CD is susceptible to damage, not just the bottom. If you must, write with a water-based, permanent pen on the inner plastic circle of the CD. Avoid “sharpies” as they might interfere with the top (lacquer) layer of the CD.

Store CDs in regular sized jewel cases, not fiberglass or paper sleeves. Store them vertically, not horizontally. Buy CDs in jewel cases, not in spindles.

Migrate, migrate, migrate. Dale Hecker of Harvard University Libraries reminds us that “Digital materials are surprisingly fragile. They depend for their continued viability upon technologies that undergo rapid and continual change.” This is true for analog as well as digital materials. Afterall, who can use a floppy disc anymore, let alone play a wax cylinder or a 78 recording? If your archive is full of DAT (digital audio tape) recordings, as ours is, make sure you copy them onto the latest technology and back them up on a server. Scan slides and create TIF files as your preservation master files. Then create “use” files for editing, printing, and emailing.

Metadata matters. It is important to include information about the information that has been collected. Describe the context, content, format, and authorship of the material. Who conducted the interview, where, and when? Is this interview part of a project or collection? What kind of camera, microphone, or sound recorder was used? What software? Is the material restricted in any way?