Originally, in 1928, the Archive of American Folk-Song in the Music Division of the Library of Congress originally set out to record and preserve American folk music. Over time, its efforts progressed to include folklore, verbal arts, and oral history. The collections of the Archive became especially important to the public after World War II, during the folk music revival of the 1950s and ‘60s. This prompted the U.S. Congress to create the American Folklife Center in 1976, “to ‘preserve and present American folklife’ through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibitions, publications, training.”
“As head of research and programs, I work directly with the head of archives and the director at the American Folklife Center to set policy, establish priorities, and ensure that the AFC serves its congressionally-mandated purpose while supporting Library of Congress goals and mission,” writes John Fenn (Ph.D. 2004). “I directly supervise a team of staff who develop and run dynamic public programming, directly support folklife research in a number of ways, and publicize the AFC’s resources and collections through a range of platforms.”
Before becoming the AFC, the Archive made numerous folk music recordings that were released on LPs as an album series. As technology has progressed, many of those collections and collected recordings have been updated to more modern formats, and many of the previously printed publications have been made available online, or by request. Although the AFC received a number of materials from individual collectors, disseminating those materials and making them available to the public has always been one of its top goals. For Fenn, it is important to work in the public interest, whether through the programming or by supporting access to the AFC collections materials.
“In many ways, this is my dream job—something I’ve had in mind since starting the program at IU,” he writes. “The overall pull in my career toward community-engaged work involving creative cultural expression that serves the public interest now makes sense. I feel that I’ve taken the training I received at IU—training to both document and understand cultural practice in light of community values—into each position I’ve held since graduating, whether part time or full time, volunteer or paid. And now, as a folklorist/ethnomusicologist, I get to work at a nationally-significant institution.” Since 1996, Fenn has been an active member of both the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology.
Prior to his position as head of research and programs, beginning January 2017, he was an associate professor at the University of Oregon, where he served as the program director for the Arts and Administration Program for a number of years. He also worked for the Lotus World Music and Culture Festival as assistant festival producer while in Bloomington and has conducted fieldwork on expressive culture in many different countries and regions.
Fenn’s interests in documentation, public presentation, stewardship, and interpretation of cultural forms and expressions, combined with his training in folklore and ethnomusicology have prepared him for such a job as the AFC provides. The AFC supports its claim to be “truly unparalleled as the preeminent source for folk and traditional materials in the United States,” with its decades-long gathering of many significant materials and its various culturally meaningful projects. “Think broadly and creatively about what your training enables you to do,” Fenn writes. “The ethnographic attention and awareness that folklore and ethnomusicology training affords is valuable beyond an academic path. Also, don’t be bound by discipline, but rather draw on it as a resource.”