Survey of Folk Heritage Collections:
Summary of Results

In the second half of 2000, the American Folklife Center, in partnership with the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, conducted a nationwide survey of unpublished recorded ethnographic audio collections. The purpose was to determine whether the vast amount of folk heritage materials gathered by professionals over a half century is entering safely into the cultural heritage of the nation. Anecdotes are legion about the plight of personal academic collections that receive little or no protection from environmental damage, publicly funded documentation projects that are inaccessible to the public and at risk of decay, and significant collections in repositories that cannot be accessed because of the ambiguity or lack of records of release for access. How can we develop a national plan for securing preservation and extending access to folk heritage collections when we lack essential data about their state?

As a way to begin gathering information, we focused on unpublished materials and surveyed organizations and individuals most likely to hold important collections of them. The survey was sent to the members of American Folklore Society and Society for Ethnomusicology and to other known collectors not belonging to these societies. We surveyed both large and small repositories and agencies conducting documentation projects, such as state folklore offices and museums. These are referred to as organizational collections. We also surveyed private collections held by individuals who have not deposited their recordings into a publicly accessible repository. These are referred to as individual collections. We mailed 2,000 surveys and received 297 responses-from 178 organizations and 119 individuals.

The survey began with questions designed to profile the collection and the infrastructure supporting it. The remainder of the questions addressed preservation, access, and intellectual property rights, with about 10 questions on each topic.

This summary of the survey results distills the salient facts uncovered and points to major gaps in our knowledge and understanding of what folklore and ethnomusicology has been recorded, where those collections can be found, how accessible they are, and whether present and future researchers are entitled to gain access to them for research purposes. It was the expectation of those who designed the survey that it would result in a baseline data set about the nation’s recorded folklore, something sorely needed by archivists, librarians, researchers, and communities that have been documented. Although the results are profoundly interesting and paint of vivid picture of the state of collections, not enough data were gathered to serve that purpose. Rather, this survey reveals where the state of knowledge ends and ignorance begins.

Clear trends emerge from these data, the most important being the functional and intellectual disconnect between those responsible for creating the collections and those charged with caring for them. A simple example of this can be seen in the data showing that folklorists receive grant funds for project documentation but not for creating access systems or planning for preservation. In other words, the creators of folk heritage documentation do not plan for the life cycle of their evidence. Another example is the small number of people and organizations who hold collections and have any funds allocated for their care and use. The list goes on.

Collection Profiles


Individual collectors operate overwhelmingly without a budget-that is, specially allocated funds that come from a known source-although a small percentage (9 percent) of respondents indicated that they use their personal funds to support the maintenance of their collections. More individuals (12 percent) indicated that they receive funding to conduct documentation but not to manage the collection or prepare it for deposit after documentation. Organizational collections fell mostly within two categories of budget support-those operating on less than $10,000 annually (36 percent) and those operating without any allocations at all (37 percent). In other words, most organizations receive funding only slightly better than do the individual collections located in private homes.

Professional Background

Most organizations (68 percent) have a full-time staff. Fifty-three percent of the responding organizations have staff members with a professional background in folklore. Sixty-one percent reported having staff members with a professional background in archives and collections management or library science. Among individual collectors, the findings were quite different: only 10 percent of the individuals responding reported having any training in archives, collection management, or library science. As the budget figures imply, these individuals may know about creating documentation but not about the need to care for that documentation.

Age of Collections

The age of these collections and the media on which they are recorded have implications for their preservation and access. Only 13 percent of all collections contain materials recorded before 1940; nearly all are organizational collections. Of these, the pre-1940 recordings make up 25 percent of their collections. Further analysis shows that most of the items in state folklore collections and individual collections were recorded between 1981 and the present.

Formats of Collections

Over 90 percent of all collections have cassette tapes, and these cassettes constitute the largest category of format, an average of over 90 percent of both individual and organizational collections. Older formats such as lacquer discs, wire, wax cylinders, and aluminum discs are found only in organizational collections.


Storage Conditions

Analog audiovisual collections in all formats are very vulnerable to physical degradation, and natural processes such as the separation of signal from substrate can be either significantly accelerated or retarded by environmental conditions. Only 49 percent of organizational collections are kept under climate-controlled conditions in which the heat and humidity levels are monitored and controlled for stability. In looking at responses to questions about storage conditions, it became clear that most individuals either did not make any attempt to stabilize their collections or mistakenly thought that domestic heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems constitute climate control. Just over half of the individual respondents (51 percent) kept their recordings in cardboard boxes, either on open shelves or in filing cabinets.

Copies for Access

It was abundantly clear from responses that only large organizations are able to make listening, or reference, copies from preservation masters. Only 12 percent of organizations that operate with budgets of less than $10,000 reported making preservation master copies in at least some cases; most of the state arts agencies and nonprofit organizations do not make a preservation master. Even more distressing, but certainly not surprising, is that most individuals are not even aware of the need to make such masters. They were confused by the questions that distinguished between preservation and reference copies and the original.

Preservation Surveys

Only 18 percent of organizations and 2 percent of individuals have assessed the state of preservation of their collections.



Most individuals (79 percent) reported intending to deposit their materials with an organization at some point. Those who were not planning to do so indicated that the documentation either did not have release forms (50 percent) or that the items had poor recording quality, were too sensitive in content, and so forth.

Database Access

Thirty-eight percent of organizations and 80 percent of individuals manage their collections without the use of a database. Although larger organizations use a database to manage their collections, 44 percent of university archives and 50 percent of state and nonprofit agencies cannot retrieve any part of their holdings from their databases.

Public Access

Organizations primarily use indexes and logs as finding aids; although 62 percent of organizations have databases, they do not use them for public access purposes. Moreover, most organizations (68 percent) that use subject headings have devised them themselves, using no common standard. Twenty-three percent use Library of Congress subject headings. Despite present practice, 63 percent of responding organizations said that they favor the creation of standardized subject headings.

The survey sought to identify the biggest users of various collections, but the responses indicate that most organizations show little or no use. Some organizations simply do not anticipate use by the public. Historical societies, museums, nonprofit organizations, and state arts agencies reported very little use of their collections by the public, including academic researchers.

Internet Access

The debates over placing ethnographic and oral history materials on the Web continue, but our survey shows that 90 percent of all respondents do not have any of their collections available through the Web.1 Of the 133 respondents who reported having none of their collections on the Web, 92 did not answer the question about influences on the decision to make collections accessible on the Internet. Of those who did respond, restrictions, privacy issues, and funding were the major factors hindering Web-based public access. Not surprisingly, only institutions with full-time staff members reported having some collections online.

Intellectual Property Rights

Release Forms

Only 25 percent of organizations reported having release forms for the greater bulk (76-100 percent) of their collections. An alarming 39 percent of all individuals do not have release forms for their materials; most of them hold materials recorded between 1961 and 1980, and 40 percent of these collectors are ethnomusicologists.

This section of the survey contained much handwritten commentary from respondents. The most interesting commentaries were from university professors and archivists stating that students did not need to obtain release forms, archivists and fieldworkers claiming that the other party was responsible for procuring release forms, and fieldworkers conducting research in developing countries stating that releases were not necessary in those parts of the world.

Responsibility for Releases

When asked about who is responsible for obtaining permission to document, organizations responded that either the project coordinator (37 percent), the fieldworker (25 percent), or-most baffling-the archivist (21 percent) was. Only 40 percent of individuals declared that it was their responsibility as fieldworker to obtain releases.


When asked how they generate income from their collections, 72 percent of respondents claim not to generate income or cost recovery from their collections through royalties, copyrights, or duplication and processing fees. Nonprofit agencies make up the majority of organizations generating income from development of products from their collections. Only two state arts agencies reported using their collections in this manner.


1. This can be attributed to many factors, including lack of funding, personnel, technology, and computerized finding aids such as databases. Many collections also reported that they did not have Web sites.