American Folklife Center Launches Occupational Folklife Project Online

American Folklife Center Launches Occupational Folklife Project Online

Kelly Revak, Processing Archivist, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress 

The American Folklife Center is pleased to announce the online launch of the Occupational Folklife Project (OFP), a major oral history initiative of the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress documenting the diverse culture of contemporary American workers. The first installment features “Working the Port of Houston,” a collection of over 50 interviews recorded during 2011-2012 by folklorists at the Houston Arts Alliance, documenting river pilots, marine firefighters, longshoremen, tugboat operators, port engineers, union organizers, owners of port-related businesses and other workers who keep one of America’s busiest ports afloat. 

“Working the Port of Houston” was made possible by an Archie Green Fellowship from the AFC. These fellowships are unusual in the world of funding because they focus on supporting grassroots collecting and are directed specifically at documenting the unedited voices of American workers. Since 2010, more than 40 Archie Green Fellowships have been awarded and fieldworkers across the United States have recorded hundreds of audio and audiovisual oral history interviews with workers in scores of trades, industries, crafts and professions. The interviews feature workers discussing their current jobs and formative work experiences, reflecting on their training, on-the-job challenges and rewards, aspirations and occupational communities.  In many cases, interviewees were asked to trace the career choices and educational paths that lead them to their present jobs and share their thoughts on the future of their professions.

Other OFP collections expected to be available online in the next year include interviews with hairdressers and beauty-shop owners, big-top and circus workers, home health care workers in Oregon and New York, ironworkers in the Upper Midwest and National Park Service workers. 

The launch of the Occupational Folklife Project is the culmination of an innovative, multi-year effort to design, test and implement a sophisticated method of collecting, managing and preserving born-digital fieldwork from numerous geographically-dispersed fieldworkers in a systematic, relatively inexpensive, and easy-to-use way.

Fieldworkers are trained to submit their documentation through a user-friendly online metadata form. Designed by an in-house AFC team, this interface allows the AFC archivists to receive and manage large amounts of fieldwork data from diverse fieldworkers through a single online portal. Moreover, use of this tool ensures consistency in submissions by utilizing controlled vocabularies, requiring core fields, and providing a systematic and uniform labeling system which auto populates to avoid potential numbering issues. Once the online metadata form has been electronically submitted, the interviewer or project coordinator also sends the digital recording, interview release form and log, and any accompanying photographs to the AFC for processing.

After AFC receives each submission, the digital files and metadata forms are reviewed, and the interview becomes a permanent part of the AFC archive. Because of the structured nature of the submission process, each interview can be rapidly cataloged and ingested into the AFC archive and the Library of Congress catalog.  Copies of the OFP interviews and metadata will then be made available through the Library’s website on a collection-by-collection basis.

AFC’s online submission portal’s flexibility has proved useful in the intake of other digital collections as well, including the Civil Rights History Project. All told, more than 600 oral histories have been submitted using this tool.  We continue to work to streamline the submission and intake process to ensure it is clear and easy to use for fieldworkers, and that the resulting metadata is consistently structured so that it can be smoothly integrated into the Library of Congress catalog. 

We hope you share our excitement about the online launch of the Occupational Folklife Project as a lasting testimonial to the knowledge, eloquence, and dedication of contemporary American workers at the dawn of the twenty-first century. 


“You’re only as good as your last landing,” Captain Doug Mims of the M/V Sam Houston told interviewer Anthony G. Potoczniak during fieldwork for the “Working the Port of Houston” OFP in 2012.


Folklorist Brent Björkman interviews Kathy Proffitt, Daily Operations Supervisor at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, about her job as part of the 2014 OFP “Ranger Lore: The Occupational Folklife of Park Rangers.”