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Programming with Library of Congress Digital Collections : Folklife

This guide is designed to help all types of libraries explore primary sources available from the Library of Congress online collection, and to connect with their communities through programming and educational opportunities.

Primary Sources for Folklife

Folklife is the "traditional expressive culture shared within various groups...
that are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institution direction."
(American Folklife Preservation Act)

Folklife is stories passed down through generations, community festivals and celebrations, it is traditional hymns, Gospel and Blue Grass, or step dancing. Folklife is traditions and skills that we learn from our parents and grandparents. Folklife is a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree, a horseshoe above the door, a Christmas pickle, or a King Cake. 

In primary sources, Folklife is documented in photographs of community celebrations, videos of people performing or buildings specific to a region. It is recordings of stories that are collected from elders, or oral history interviews about how someone lived. It could be a quilt or other handcrafted item that certain groups or communities are recognized for. Folklife can be passed down in many different forms that offer a social and cultural history of the United States of America.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

American Life Histories derived from a series of interviews conducted between 1936 to 1940 as a part of the Folklore Project of the Federal Writer's Project (FWP). The FWP was a New Deal program that employed over 300 writers across 24 states. They collected ghost stories, life histories, personal memories, immigration stories, and work stories. In many cases the interview documentation recorded demographic data of participants providing a snapshot of what their lives were like. The collection as a whole is a fascinating look at how people lived, their stories and memories, how much people had in common or how different they were. 

Collection Highlights

text document of an interview conducted by the Federal Writer's Project about a Ghost Story.

Ghost Story

Interview conducted for the Federal Writer's Project: Folklore Project, Life Histories in 1938. The person being interviewed is relaying a conversation she had with acquaintances about unexplained experiences, or "Ghost Stories." 

The interview was conducted by Dorothy West in New York, New York.  It is titled "Interview with Mrs. Laura M Ghost Story."

Interview sheet from the Federal Writers' Project that outline who is being interviewed and by whom on the subject of Early social Customs

Early Social Customs

Interview conducted for the Federal Writer's Project: Folklore Project, Life Histories on December 14,1938. The person being interviewed is talking about growing up in Oswego Grange area in Portland. The interviewee details hunting, square dancing, spelling bees, clothing, and their view of how different life was in 1938 compared to when they were growing up. 

The interview was conducted by Sarah B. Wrenn in Portland, Oregon.  It is titled "Early Social Customs."



Text document of an interview conducted by the Federal Writers' Project detailing singing games for children .

Song Games for the Small Child

Interview conducted for the Federal Writer's Project: Folklore Project, Life Histories in 1939. The person being interviewed is reciting rhyming children's games. 

The interview was conducted by Hilda Polacheck in 1939.  It is titled "Song Games for the Small Child."

Programming Ideas

Oral histories are a way of documenting family, culture, and history. From oral histories recipes, music, ghost stories, and family and community history have been passed down. If you were to record your own oral history what kind of story would you tell? If you were to talk to someone in your family or community for an oral history, what questions would you ask?

For this program, discuss what oral histories are and how they are used to communicate folklife culture. Have participants brainstorm what questions they would ask someone they were interviewing. Once a list of questions are developed have people pair up and interview each other using the questions created. 

Supporting Resource: The American Folklife Center. Planning an Oral History Project. 

Several of the interviews in the American Life Histories collection detail songs and games that were played by children or by adults. Several of the people interviewed detail the lyrics or words of the song or game, but very few detail how it was played or the tune of the song. 

For this program have participants search the collection using different keywords related to "songs," "games," "jump rope," etc. (please note the potentially harmful or offensive material statement at bottom of page.)

Have participants analyze the items they find and see if the group can come up with a tune for the song lyrics or a game to match. 

An example, the song below "The Snowman," is from an interview conducted by Hilda Polacheck in 1939. In addition to the song, a short description of a game is detailed. 

Have participants sing "The Snowman" to different rhymes such as "London Bridge," "Ring Around the Rosie," or "Old McDonald." Which song tune fits the lyrics best? Can the participants develop their own tune for the lyrics? Once the tune is developed, try to play the game.

As an alternative, have participants try to make up their own rhyming/singing game. 


Lyrics to a circle game called "The Snowman."

Song Games for the Small Child, (1939), interview conducted by Hilda Polacheck.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936 to 1940s is organized in multiple ways. You can narrow the collection by location, interview subject, or by contributor. For this program, select one of the categories and have participants read several of the interviews. When reading the interviews have them note things in the interviews that stick out or that they want to learn more about. 

For example, if you select interviews from the "Occupation," categories, have a discussion about work life described in the interview and modern work life. Is anything similar? What is different? Would they want to work that job? If participants are not sure what the job is, see if information can be found describing it. 

Please note the potentially harmful or offensive material statement at bottom of page.

Chronicling America is an invaluable resources for discovering Folklife history. Chronicling America is a joint project between the National Digital Newspaper Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Library of Congress. The ongoing project digitizes and makes available online hundreds of newspapers from around the United States and territories. 

For this program outline what Chronicling America is and the different ways that it can be used to trace family, local or national history. Then have groups utilize Chronicling America to look for different items of their choice. 


Death announcement for Judge Dorsey B. Houck from The Washington Times, May 5, 1899.

  Death announcement for Judge Dorsey B. Houck from the   newspaper, The Washington Times, May 5, 1899.


newspaper clipping about Mardi-Gras Festivities from the February 26, 1857 edition of the New Orleans Daily Crescent.

Newspaper clipping about Mardi-Gras Festivities from the February 26, 1857 morning edition of the New Orleans Daily Crescent.

Related Collections

The Digital Collections of The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress offer a fascinating glimpse of life, memory, and culture in the United States of America. There are over 40 digital collections available that cover topics ranging from Folklife in various states, music, linguistics, and arts. The collections can be used in multiple ways to learn about Folklife. 


Double Wedding Ring quilt, close up on pattern in colors of yellow, green, pink, and floral.

Double Wedding Ring Quilt, created by Zenna Todd and photographed by Geraldine Niva Johnson in September 1978.


The Library of Congress digital collection, Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996, contains images and oral history interviews from the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project and the Lands' End All-American Quilt Contest Collection. The interviews offer a glimpse into the lives of the quiltmakers and their daily life and covers a wide variety of quiltmaking styles. 

For a program idea, invite a local artist to present on their quiltmaking and the process they take to design and complete the design. A separate program idea would be to do a hand's on activity where participants can design their own quilt pattern and color it on paper. 

Statement on Potentially Harmful Content and Fair Use

Statement on Potentially Harmful Content
Some of the materials presented in this guide may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved by the Library of Congress and presented here for their historical significance. 

Fair Use

Digitized primary sources in the Library's collection each include a "Rights and Access" or "Rights Advisory" statement within the catalog information.  These can help users determine whether the item is in the public domain or whether there are copyright restrictions.  For more information about the Library of Congress' policy on Copyrights and Primary Sources visit the website.