Tracing lore of society's traditions

People have been taking folklore seriously for almost a hundred years. The American Folklore Society was founded in Cambridge, Mass., in 1888 and continues in Washington, D.C., as the only national professional and scholarly organization of folklorists in the United States.

The society sponsors an annual meeting, issues a quarterly Journal of American Folklore and various other publications, and serves as a clearinghouse and forum for a diverse membership.

Many members of the society work today in universities, colleges, secondary schools, museums, federal and state government, media organizations, consulting firms, and other organizations.

Folklorists working in the public sector at state and local levels conduct surveys and field studies, maintain archives, and develop educational and interpretive publications, records, and films. They organize lectures, workshops , conferences, exhibitions, concerts, festivals, and programs for school, radio, and television.

Before the depression decade, support for folklore research and fieldwork came from private sources. In the late 1930s many New Deal programs, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, directly or indirectly spurred folklore activities throughout the country.

Another major wave of interest was inspired by the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife held in 1967.

Folklore courses have been taught in American universities at both undergraduate and graduate levels since the late 19th century, and they are now offered on a regular basis in more than 450 North American colleges and universities. Some of the academic programs - such as those at Indiana University, University of Californa at Los Angeles, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Pennsylvania - try to cover the entire range of folklore methodology, theory, and research. Each of these four offer both MA and PhD degrees in the field.

In 1976 the American Folklife Preservation Act was adopted by Congress ''to preserve and present the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States - familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, and regional.'' This expressive culture, according to the act, includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, and handicraft. These expressions are generally learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction.

The American Folklife Center, located in the Library of Congress, was also established in l976 to promote programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, and exhibition.

Membership in the society, headquartered at 1703 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009, is open to all persons interested in folklore, and annual dues are $25 for individuals and $12.50 for students. An informative booklet called ''Folklore/Folklife'' is available from the society for $3.50, postage paid.

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