Academic journal article Western Folklore

Wisconsin Folks: Digitizing Culture for the Public Good

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Wisconsin Folks: Digitizing Culture for the Public Good

Article excerpt

The website Wisconsin Folks ( is getting an overhaul. In its tenth year, the once cutting-edge website shows signs of age. Of course, periodic redesign and regular content updates are necessary elements of any website's maintenance - a website is never a finished project but an entity that must evolve to remain relevant (Bjòrklund 2009) - yet that now obvious understanding was not so evident in 1999 when a team at the Wisconsin Arts Board (WAB) launched the digital project. Coming out of participation in the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D. C, and a subsequent restaging as the Wisconsin Folklife Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, the WAB Folk Arts Program was poised to develop a curriculum on the folk arts and traditions of the state that furthered the extensive research conducted for the festivals (Gilmore 1997; March 1998; Cook 1998). We understood such a curriculum, with the addition of a traditional artists' directory, to be the next step in full deployment of the extraordinary amount of documentation created for the purpose of the festival.1 Wisconsin Folks was the happy result.

In retrospect, the decision to create an online resource of this type seems a leap of faith. We did not understand fully what would be required in the then relatively new medium of the Internet. To remind readers, in 1999, only 32.7 percent of the US population accessed the Internet (US Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, 1998). The average number of online sessions per month was seventeen and the average number of unique sites visited monthly was nine, with an average total of eight hours per month spent online by adult users of the Internet (Nielsen/Net Ratings 2000). In both public and private schools with Internet access, teachers were more likely than students to have access to e-mail and the World Wide Web (National Center for Education Statistics 1999). 2 For WAB, 1997 was the year the agency launched its own website.

The 2011 redesign of Wisconsin FolL· is an opportunity to reflect on the intersection of the fields of public sector folklore, folk arts in education, and digital cultural heritage from a critical perspective. These three areas rarely overlap so thoroughly; retracing the path of initial development can highlight the issues shared and solutions sought within each field, each grounded in what Archie Green describes as "doing good:"

The use of public funds for the common good is as old as our republic; it continues to serve. We know the old English term "weal" to mean a just, healthy, and prosperous state. We translate "doing good" into participation in the commonweal. The songs, stories, dramas, rituals, amulets, artifacts, beliefs, and practices that intrigue us are also instruments in the construction of common wealth. (2000:6)

Hearing Green as an iconic activist of public folklore, all three fields that ground the Wisconsin FolL· project bear traces of his idea that a cultural specialist's work with everyday expressions contributes to a common good. In their introduction to the edited volume Public Folklore, Robert Baron and Nick Spitzer (2007:3) explain that contemporary public folklore is a form of activism for "countering the forces that disrupt and threaten traditional cultures." They argue that, "this activism is centered upon working with artists and community members to develop strategies for maintaining and creatively adapting their traditions to new social circumstances." In 1999, the web was the new social circumstance.

The activist trend common to Folk Arts in Education (FAIE) , a subdiscipline of the field of folklore, aims at transformation at the personal level so that those transformed can apply their new insights to their home community. FAIE curricular materials emphasize "helping teachers and students view the world through a folkloristic lens using folkloristic methods, thus effecting individual change in the form of reducing individual students' and teachers' prejudice and increasing their appreciation of others" (Hamer 2000:46, original emphasis). …

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