About the Field School: How Folklife Archives Work

Where the processing begins

The Folklore Studies Program at George Mason University is one of the few programs in the U.S. the offers comprehensive instruction in ethnographic methods and data collection.  Thirty-seven years ago, my colleague, Professor Emerita Margaret Yocom founded the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive. Students have been submitting original work to the archive since.

In 2011, working with colleagues at the Library of Congress, I began the Field School for Cultural Documentation at GMU.  The field school has been in existence for nearly 20 years; I’m pleased that GMU has the opportunity to host the field school and offer students professional training in research methods and project planning.  Field School graduates acquire real-life work skills in ethnographic data collection, in-depth interviewing, and project management.  Many go on to take positions as professional ethnographers for government agencies and private industry.

As part of the field school, students are told that their collections will become part of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive.  It’s an important aspect of the project–students need to understand that the field school is not simply a class project. They’re doing real and significant research that will be available to other scholars, researchers and community members who will want to know more about the places and people the field school documents.

This year we’re transferring all of the hard-copy files and objects in the physical archive (located at George Mason University) to a fully digital archive as part of the National Folklife Archives Initiative.  Most of the work we’ve collected since 2011 is now available through the archives.

Why archive the materials?  So much of the work that graduate and advanced undergraduates do is read by one person-the instructor.  This is unfortunate.  Students are capable of  producing fantastic collections that might be useful for future research and understanding.  Too many important collections get tossed out.

Sometimes students become territorial with their collections and are reluctant to share it with the archive.  For classes other than the field school, M.A. and Ph.D. theses,  students have the option of donating their materials to the archive.  If a student has pending publications on work, I ask them to consider donating to the archives after their work is completed or published.  That way they are the first to write about their collections, and future researchers can still benefit from their work.

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