Centering Classroom Use for Ethnographic Sources with Folk Sources CMS

By Andy Kolovos, Vermont Folklife and Sarah Milligan, Oklahoma Oral History Research Project


Discover, a new online platform that hosts Teaching with Primary Sources ethnographic materials and primary source sets. The authors showcase the “curation process in action” through short videos and text to inspire educators to identify folk sources from their own communities.

Teaching with Folk Sources, Unit 1

Access all Unit 1 lessons in the link above, “Classroom Connections.”

Lesson 1: Discover Folk Sources  136
by Lisa Rathje

Discover Folk Sources Worksheets
Comparison Worksheet 139
Primary Source Analysis Tool 140
History Timeline Comparison Worksheet 141

Lesson 2: Written and Spoken Words  142
by Andy Kolovos and Alexandra S. Antohin

Writing for Communication: Describe and Illustrate a Process 147

Lesson 3: Exploring Primary and Secondary Sources Through the Folklore of Food Systems  148
by Alexandra S. Antohin and Mary Wesley, with Teaching Tips by Joe Rivers, Brattleboro Area Middle School

Exploring Primary and Secondary Sources Worksheets
Primary Source Comparison Organizer 154
New England Fishing Industry Note Organizer 156

Note: Is Art a Primary Source?
by Paddy Bowman and Lisa Rathje, Local Learning  158

Follow Andy Kolovos through this series of 5 short orientation videos to

The Folk Sources CMS (Content Management System),, is an online repository and database that collects the primary source sets selected for inclusion in the structured Curriculum Guides created through the Teaching with Folk Sources (TFS) project. This essay and videos present an overview of how the project framed the concept of “folk sources,” the nature of the primary source materials included, and the ideological and logistical framework behind the development of the Folk Sources CMS itself.

What do we mean by “Folk Sources”?
TFS focuses on materials drawn from a particular variety of archives: those generated through the work of folklorists, oral historians, ethnomusicologists, and others conducting ethnographic research with communities across the United States.  Following the convention established by the late Gerald Parsons, Head of Reference at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, we refer to these materials as “ethnographic collections” or ethnographic archives (Parsons 1995, 7)1. In contemporary terms, ethnographic collections most often consist of audiovisual documentation-–photographic images, video and sound recordings—and text records—transcripts, fieldnotes—that simultaneously serve as records of the activities of the fieldworker and as records of the cultural practices, memories, and experiences of the people with whom the fieldworker engaged. In the U.S., ethnographic collections are held by colleges and universities, state arts and humanities councils, state and local historical societies, nonprofit organizations, and federal agencies such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.

Historically the creation of the documentary materials that make up these collections has been informed by the interests and perspectives of the researchers—and/or by the priorities of those supporting it such as host institutions and funders—rather than by the priorities and interests of the individuals and groups with whom researchers work. In recent years, researchers have increasingly sought to partner with cultural communities, working with them to focus research on topics and perspectives important to the communities themselves. Additionally, documentary projects originating from within cultural and social communities are now common, sidestepping the outside researcher all together.

Regardless of the nature of the individuals conducting the work, the records generated through these research projects emerge from social interaction between the people behind the camera or microphone and the people they interview, record, and photograph. Ethnographic collections are, above all else, products of human communication—they are the sum of the actions, attitudes, perceptions, and values of all those involved in the process of creating them.

Teaching with Folk Sources
The TFS project partners conceived this online platform as a way to draw ethnographic archives into a larger discussion of primary source materials in education, and to do so by grounding our efforts in the national-scale work of Local Learning: The National Network for Folk Arts in Education. is an online repository that hosts the ethnographic primary source materials—oral history recordings, videos, and photographs—that we have integrated into our formal lesson plans and other structured project outputs. It establishes a centralized, stable home for these raw materials and provides a way for other educators and learners to access these items and incorporate them into their own work in ways that serve their needs.

In regard to the primary source materials included in TFS, the partners seek to realize three priorities.  First, to generate broader awareness of ethnographic collections and their contents. Second, to assert the value in treating these materials as primary sources themselves—as materials akin to (but also distinct from) historical documents, letters, diaries, and photographs. Third, to emphasize audiovisual records, in particular sound recordings, and the roles they can serve in teaching and learning. The Curriculum Guide serves as the main vehicle for presenting the primary source content in educational settings and addressing these broader goals. However, the partners also saw value in making the discrete primary source items directly accessible to educators and students—for them to explore and draw into teaching and learning in ways we did not consider. By seeing this curation process in action, the hope is also that educators can identify folk sources from their own communities to adapt and include in similar applications. The Folk Sources CMS, hosted at, provides the platform for engaging with these resources. also plays a crucial part in the project’s goals by drawing together on a single platform the primary source materials from partner repositories, links to materials at the Library of Congress, and—when permissions allow—Library of Congress materials not currently available online. These items are formatted to correspond to “primary source sets,” a term used by the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Partner Program to refer to a curated and themed collection or playlist of materials. These sets are developed to be classroom ready as a part of our bundled learning tools and encourage teachers to generate their own sets that align by topic, theme, and geography without the potential intimidation of sifting through thousands of sources from in a single database. It promotes literacy for online and archival discovery by adhering to standardized descriptive metadata and faceted browsing common to digital collections, but with terminology geared toward teaching standards and classroom use, thus simplifying the search process for adapting content to related lessons. Focusing these primary source sets on folk sources, which reflect the nuances of examining lived experiences, gets learners thinking about attribution of testimonies and other types of recorded narratives, which is important when processing information literacy on many levels. Perhaps most excitingly, it allows for the nimble repurposing of this content by others in new and inspiring ways that can lead to the discovery of new connections and the creation of new knowledge.

The design of also introduces important concepts such as how to work with transcripts and build robust descriptors, such as keywords, natural language tags, and context description. Lastly, it establishes a unique space for students and educators to explore archival materials in ways that are curated for their specific use, such as a content scope that offers diverse perspectives and historical periods, presented through concise and engaging media clips. The site is a starting point for developing content and easy adaptability for introducing ethnographic content into learning environments, with the hope of spurring future branches of creativity in education in the years to come.


Works Cited

Parsons, Gerald E. 1995. Performers, Collectors, and the People of the United States.  Folklife Center News. Winter 1995.

Saylor, Nicole. 2017. The Archivesque: Reframing Folklore Collecting in a Popular Culture World. Folklife Today. November 25,


  1. See Saylor 2017 for a recent reconsideration of Parson’s seminal 1995 essay.