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Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Field Techniques

Conducting Fieldwork

Image: Shawn Orr interviews Mission Valley resident Waldo Phillips Shawn Orr interviews long-time Mission Valley resident Waldo Phillips as part of his school's Montana Heritage Project in St. Ignatius, Montana, 1977. Sponsored by the American Folklife Center, the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, and a consortium of Montana organizations and institutions, the Montana Heritage Project encourages young people to discover and document the people and traditions of their own local communities. Photo by Michael Umphrey.

Folklore can be collected from almost anyone, but certain people, by virtue of their good memories, long lives, performance skills, or particular roles within a community, are often especially well qualified to provide information. Folklorists sometimes refer to these people as "tradition bearers." A researcher's own family members may include tradition bearers, or can also provide leads to such persons in the larger community. And the very way community members are identified by others in the community may indicate the kind of information you can expect to get from them: traditional craftspeople, shop keepers, storytellers, musicians, or those who know and use proverbs, to name just a few examples.

If you have decided on the subject of your investigation and prepared yourself with preliminary research, you are ready to identify people who can provide the information you seek. If you are working in your own community, start with family and friends. If they are unable to lead you to a "tradition bearer," try a visit to:

local churches;
community and corner stores;
civic and cultural clubs;
small parks and other outdoor areas in which people gather;
public events like ethnic and community festivals, country music concerts, volunteer fire department fund-raisers, barbecues, and church homecomings.

Professional folklorists may use such places as starting points when they are working in communities other than their own. They will sometimes use flyers and posters, and may even receive helpful local newspaper, TV, and radio coverage if their projects are particularly interesting and important locally. Determination and legwork will almost always have positive results.

Most states now have folklorists or folk arts professionals who can give you additional advice about your project. Helpful assistance may also be available to you and your project if you are located near a university that has a folklore studies program, or a folklorist on staff.

For information on state and local programs, as well as on colleges and universities that offer degrees in folklore, see Folklife Sourcebook, an online resource at www.loc.gov/folklife/source/
There you will find chapters on "Folklife Programming in Public Agencies and Organizations" and "Higher Education Programs."

 

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   April 4, 2014
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