W.Va. Folklife Digital Archive honors state heritage

CLARKSBURG (AP) — The West Virginia Folklife Program, a project of the West Virginia Humanities Council, has created a new digital archive of West Virginia heritage called The West Virginia Folklife Collection.

The collection is hosted digitally by the West Virginia and Regional History Center located in West Virginia University’s downtown campus library.

According to a press release, the collection consists of nearly 2,500 documentary items gathered through folklife fieldwork and programs operated through the West Virginia Folklife Program beginning in November 2015.

The fieldwork was completed by Emily Hilliard, the state folklorist, while the history center prepared it for presentation. Hilliard looks back fondly on the opportunity to learn about and meet the individuals she interviewed for the collection.

“It’s been really incredible. It’s a real gift of this work to meet so many amazing people — practitioners and traditional artists. That’s everything from home cooks to wood carvers to independent professional wrestlers, people who host church celebrations and community celebrations like the Lebanese Mahrajan Festival in Wheeling and the Chicken Blasts events in Weirton, ramp suppers, a lot of musicians and songwriters. Really the whole breadth and depth of contemporary cultural communities in the state,” Hilliard said.

The West Virginia and Regional History Center keeps the archive of materials and plans to do so for generations to come.

“Our part of it has been the technical side. Emily did the field work — interviewing and recording. We are hosting the material through our digital asset management system. We have supported the work in a variety of ways because we have the infrastructure to make the digital collection public. … We’re an archival repository, so our goal is to preserve things in perpetuity,” said Lori Hostuttler, the assistant director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

“I’d like to hope that in a few generations, someone could go and listen to an interview then with their grandfather or grandmother. … and also researchers from students to academics to writers. Maybe musicians who are looking for tunes for their repertoire. Definitely researchers who are interested in the specific subjects in the collection,” Hilliard said.

The archive is for everybody and the fact that the archive is digital helps make the information accessible to people all over the state.

“I think (it’s for) anyone who’s interested in traditional life and it could really be for all ages. Young people could learn about the past — all of us could. … (It’s for) people interested in hobbies and anyone interested in American history,” Hostuttler said.

“The archival collection is open to everyone, and I think that’s one of the benefits of having a digital collection. Obviously in a state like West Virginia, not everyone has broadband access, but it’s a good alternative to having to go to an archive and sit there and request items. So that’s really exciting, and we have WVU libraries to thank for being our hosts for the collection and making sure that everything is preserved by digital preservation best practices,” Hilliard said.

Hostuttler said the folklife archive is a thorough collection and clarifies that the West Virginia Folklife Collection is unique because of its broad range of topics, from traditional to contemporary.

“There are contemporary folk materials and more traditional materials as well,” Hostuttler said. “We have a variety of digital collections already, but none of them tackle folklife in this manner because (Hilliard) has interviews, transcriptions and photographs of contemporary people. Our archives are typically more traditional materials. This is the first collection that’s really documenting contemporary West Virginians. … It’s a wonderful collaboration with the West Virginia Humanities Council.”

Covering these contemporary and modern materials alongside traditional topics is important to Hilliard because culture is always changing.

“I think that it’s important to realize that culture is a moving and living and breathing force and traditions like wrestling and hip hop, at this point, those aren’t new. Wrestling existed in the late 18th century up and down the Ohio River and in southern West Virginia as a form of popular entertainment. The same with hip-hop, which draws on what we consider to be more traditional forms. These are what we consider vernacular or traditional forms in their current evolution. So we’re not necessarily interested in reenactment or recreation, but looking at how these traditions have evolved and are part of people’s everyday life today,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard is proud of the collection and hopes that it will educate generations to come about the material topics as well as the importance of folklorists.

“It’s very exciting. I’m so glad that we’re able to make it accessible to people. I think it will also go a long way for communicating to future interviewees what we’re doing and where these materials are going and the purpose of this work. … I’m actually leaving the folklorist position in a couple weeks, so I’m really thrilled that we’re able to get this as a crowning project and achievement for my work in the position. So it’s always been a public facing program and this finally makes those materials available to the public instead of being sort of stored away,” Hilliard said.

The Folklife Collection features a primary archive while having several major subcategories that feature specific areas or topics. Info about sub-collections can be found on wvfolklife.org. Topics include the 2018 West Virginia teacher strike, Helvetia traditions and foodways, interviews about Kroger employees on their work during the pandemic, the collection of collector and musician Jim Costa and interviews of independent professional wrestlers in West Virginia.

The Helvetia Archives contributed a great deal of information to the West Virginia Folklife Collection and is featured as one of the sub-collections.

“We’re very much into building. We’ve been gathering materials and photographs, and we’re big into digital storage. We’ve done a lot of gathering of stories, and I’ve worked a lot on the genealogy of community families, both present and past. When you start reaching out to people, they share stories and they share pictures. We’ve been trying to archive as much of that as possible … to show what Helvetia is,” said Anna Chandler, an archivist with the Helvetia Archives.

Hostuttler particularly enjoyed seeing the materials from Helvetia as well as the professional wrestling information.

“I think the wrestling piece is good. It’s interesting because I wouldn’t have thought of it. There’s also the materials about Helvetia, the Swiss community in Randolph County… they have foodways and traditions. I enjoy cooking and I’m of Swiss heritage, so I find it interesting,” Hostuttler said.

Chandler expresses the importance of being able to help historical information survive and advises everyone to archive their own information when possible.

“I think my favorite part is gathering the stories that could fade away,” Chandler said. “Please don’t put ‘grandma’ on the back of (a picture). Tell us who grandma was.”

Looking back on her time as the state folklorist and the work she’s done, Hilliard enjoys the personal aspect the best.

“I love sitting with people and visiting them in their homes or their workshops and listening to their stories. There’s always something that I find amazing or incredible about people that I sit and interview. So I definitely like the fieldwork aspect the most. I also like reviewing the interview for the transcription, but really the fieldwork is the bread and butter for most folklorists. Building those relationships and making those connections is really important to me.”

The West Virginia Folklife Collection can be accessed on the West Virginia Libraries website at wvfolklife.lib.wvu.edu.


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