Dispatches from a remote wedding table

A few years ago, I was sitting at a wedding reception table that felt like it was a quarter mile from the bride and groom. Most receptions seem to have a few tables like this: co-workers, college roommates, and longtime babysitters who are special enough to have warranted an invitation, but who are probably seated too far away to tell whether the best man is having chicken or steak. The people at these tables often don’t know one another, making the conditions ideal for small talk. This was our case.

The guy next to me said he was an engineer. Dutifully, the rest of us asked about the details of his work. I forget what they were. What I remember, however, is this: When I later said I was a folklorist, the engineer went into hysterics. For a moment, I thought to be offended. Then I realized he was laughing because he had legitimately never heard the word before. He probably thought I was making it up. So I swallowed this particular grain of salt and ruminated for the umpteenth time on the smallness and relative obscurity of the discipline of folklore studies. (For the record, the word “engineer” isn’t exactly a model of linguistic normalcy. It’s pretty close to “mouseketeer,” as far as I’m concerned.)

The Brothers Grimm (Wilhelm, left, and Jacob)
The Brothers Grimm (Wilhelm, left, and Jacob)

If I had the engineer in front of me today, I would tell him that he probably knows the names of two famous folklorists, and that he has probably known them since childhood. “Who?” he would ask incredulously. And with particularly Germanic aplomb, I would answer: “Have you ever heard of Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm?” The conversation would proceed from there, as I explain that the Brothers Grimm provided a template for the sort of work that many folklorists still do today. They identified traditional art in their own culture, sought out its experts, and collected material directly from them.

The point of this anecdote is to highlight a new resource for explaining the history of folklore studies in the United States and Germany.  IU’s University Archives and Records Management now makes available the archive of the German American Conference, which is shorthand for Folklore and Social Transformation: A Dialogue of German and American Folklorists, held November 1-3, 1988, at Indiana University. Organized by the Folklore Institute, the conference was an attempt to build a connection between scholars in the United States, where academic folklore studies are comparatively young, and scholars from Germany, where the discipline’s roots are deeper.

The conference accomplished two things. First, as any academic meeting does, it gave scholars a chance to present new research. Second, and more importantly in this case, it provided a venue to discuss the international folklore studies community. When scholars from different countries come together to discuss what they’re up to every day, the vibrancy and visibility of a given discipline are likely to increase. A practical result of this sort of collaboration is a more globally conscious academic. When armed with an international perspective, scholars get better at explaining their work within the academy–to colleagues in other disciplines, for example–and outside of it–say, to engineers who think the word “folklorist” is the neologism of the year.

The archive of the German American Conference is a direct line into what German and U.S. folklorists thought of their discipline in the late 1980s. Their presentations addressed the nature of folklore studies in a variety of social contexts. Anthropologist and folklorist Christoph Daxelmüller traced the history of German-Jewish folklore studies in the decades leading to the rise of the Third Reich. Folklorist Marta Weigle explained the role of folklore in creating and marketing images of the Southwestern United States during the years of westward expansion. Folklorist Elliott Oring examined the implication of folk expression in journalism, where objectivity, not creativity, is the common standard of success.

For three days in 1988, folklorists from two nations gathered to discuss these ideas. Conference organizers, mindful that the event should be collaborative, organized cross-cultural respondents for each paper. U.S. presenters got respondents from Germany, and German presenters got respondents from the U.S. This was an ultimately successful bid to ensure that international discourse would drive the meeting. As IU folklorist Richard Bauman summed up in a later piece of correspondence, everyone involved had “done gut.”

In fairness to the engineer from the wedding reception, a single conference held at Indiana University in 1988 does not change the visibility of folklore studies in any way that he or most people can see. But events like this go a long way in developing academic community. And when communities crystallize, inter-community connections become easier to develop. In other words, before we attempt to explain ourselves to others, we must first take steps to understand ourselves alone. Who are we? Where do we fit? What histories do we inhabit? These are heady questions, but perhaps they’re necessary for the group that wishes to establish a sense of identity, either locally or internationally.

The finding aid can be found in Archives Online. To view the archive of the German American Conference, email or call us at (812) 855-1127. We would be happy to assist!

The Date, 1946-1947, A Student Publication

The Date001
The cover of the April 1947 Moonlight Issue

A male student clutching a jug of alcohol, the bare backsides of young men spreading a page, and the long, lovely legs attached to five beautiful “coeds” competing for the “Miss Legs” title all make up the 1946-1947 publications of what was a new magazine on campus, The Date. First starting out, and without a designated space to write and publish, Don Goins and the rest of The Date staff completed their work on the basement floor hallway of the Science Hall. Knowing what they published, it seems like an appropriate space to gather and gossip about the goings-on around campus. A typical monthly publication would be filled with all things related to student life: pictures of those recently “pinned,” stories of popular (or not-so-popular) professors, tongue-in-cheek cartoons, funny short stories, and advertisements for shops and restaurants around Bloomington.

For those interested in studying campus culture after World War II, this publication would be the perfect starting point. Picking up the magazine today feels like picking up a modern publication (apart from the fashion, of course).  The publication provides an intimate glimpse into the personal lives of students: their love interests, after-hour excursions, and attentiveness to campus events all add to the richness of I.U. history. From a current student’s point of view, the time period becomes more familiar with each magazine I read. I can see myself kissing my date in the Well House at midnight, having a drink at a local bar, and studying in the library with my peers.  There’s a sense of eagerness and excitement that is often associated with the young reflected in the eyes of the young men and women pictured. I wonder what became of these students, if they ever came back to Indiana University after graduation, and what they would think of this generation of college students if they could see them today.  Who knows? But what we do know is that their memories are forever preserved in the pages of The Date and students of today and the future can share their experiences and reflect upon the differences – or similarities – of their own IU experience.

Other images:

The Date004 The Date006 The Date005 The Date007 The Date008 The Date011


Life and Death and the Population Institute for Research and Training

The Population Institute for Research and Training (PIRT) was founded in 1986 on Indiana University’s campus to promote and facilitate the study of demography.  As such, PIRT’s research focused on major milestone events in life, none of which are more important than birth and death.  These two essential factors of population created two of the largest research areas for PIRT’s working papers series.

PIRT hosted a “Cause of Death” conference in 1993, which brought together scholars and researchers discussing the practical and social issues of mortality.  The conference and the papers associated with it inspired the coordination of a special Cause of Death issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, published in 1999. Articles addressed the causes of death across a variety of times and places; titles included:


The Development of Reporting Systems for Causes of Death in Denmark, HANS CHRISTIAN JOHANSEN
National Statistics on the Causes of Death in Nineteenth-Century Bavaria, MICHAEL STOLBERG
Premises, Premises: Comments on the Comparability of Classifications, STEPHEN J. KUNITZ
Medical Causes of Death in Preindustrial Europe: Some Historiographical Considerations, JON ARRIZABALAGA
Nosology, Mortality, and Disease Theory in the Eighteenth Century, MARGARET DELACY
The full text of the journal is available at oxfordjournals.org.

PIRT also coordinated the efforts of a Fertility Working Group, which researched birth in a variety of populations.  The group produced thirteen papers in conjunction with the Fertility Working Group Project, which was completed in 1984.  These papers examined several social factors to find their correlation with fertility.  A few of them include:

Female Employment and Fertility in Developed Countries, JAN F. BRAZZELL
Origin-Destination Comparisons of Migrant and Stayer Fertility Differentials: The Case of Brazil, HUGO M. HERVITZ
Urbanization and Rural-to-Urban Migration in Relation to Less Developed Country Fertility, GEORGE J. STOLNITZ
Nuptiality and Fertility in Less Developed Countries, ELYCE ROTELLA
Old Age Security and Fertility, DAVID WILDASIN

These papers and the entire working papers series produced by the Population Institute of Research and Training are now available for research in the University Archives along with other administrative records of the Institute. Contact the Archives for further information!

This is about to get personal

The archive of a long-term ethnographic study of Hungarian ethnic identity is now available for perusal at University Archives and Records Management. The study, facilitated by Indiana University’s Folklore Institute in the early 1980s, examined the ways that Hungarians in both Hungary and the American Midwest maintained senses of community through everyday customs. This project led to an academic conference, a special issue of the Journal of Folklore Research, and a rich collection of photographs and fieldwork reports. And that’s where the official story starts to get personal, at least for me.

Sorting through the papers of the Hungarian-American project over the past couple of weeks was an exercise in self-reflection. As the research team documented ethnic foodways and days of religious observance among Hungarian culture groups, I recalled my own encounters with similar sorts of traditions during my childhood. My mother’s side of the family has always held on to certain pieces of its Slovak heritage, from the practice of Roman Catholicism to the hearty peasant food that characterizes our communal meals. Sauerkraut, sausage, and the sign of the cross are comfortable bedfellows in my mind.

In fairness to the academic persona that I’ve spent the past five years cultivating, this kind of musing makes me recoil a bit. Though they are neighbors, Hungary and Slovakia are distinct nations with distinct cultures. From a scholarly standpoint, it does not do to lump them together so indiscriminately. On the other hand, the human in me gravitates toward what I recognize as a resounding articulation of home. The people I grew up with behaved like the people whose lives are documented in the Hungarian-American project archive. It was impossible for me, while browsing these papers, not to be reminded of grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

Mary Slota
Mary Slota

Here’s a case in point: My great-grandmother, Mary Slota, left Slovakia for northeast Ohio in the early twentieth century. One of my favorite family photos shows her in her kitchen, proudly displaying a ring of homemade hurka, or blood sausage, probably harvested from a hog that was raised on the small farm where she lived with my great-grandfather. One of the hundreds of photos in the Hungarian-American project archive shows a widow in the Hungarian village of Cserépfalu. Babushka tied around her head, she leans over a bowl while plucking a chicken, presumably in preparation for a meal. Captured in the photographic frame, both women illustrate the cultural moment they inhabit. They wear floral patterned aprons and work with ingredients that exemplify a farm-to-table attitude long before that phrase became trendy among the culinary elite. And while Mary Slota and the villager from Cserépfalu spoke different languages and lived in different places, their everyday lives were more like than unlike.

Cserépfalu villager
Villager from Cserépfalu, Hungary – from the Hungarian-American project archive

That the archival material of the Hungarian-American project speaks so insistently to my own experience is, in my opinion, an indication of its success. Project researchers mindfully collected images and words to produce a body of data that is greater than the sum of its parts. While the project’s focus was Hungarian ethnic identity, the amassed data recalls the larger experience of eastern and central Europeans in the twentieth century. One can come to this conclusion on a personal level, as I did with my photo comparison, but it is also possible to approach the issue conceptually. Apart from the photos, the Hungarian-American project archive contains many documents that attempt to analyze the immigrant experience. Here are some of the questions they pose: What does it mean to be “ethnic,” anyway? Are Hungarians only ethnic once they have left Hungary? Is culture something people inherit or something they create? What about tradition? Does it have to stay the same, or are we allowed to change it?

There isn’t enough space to describe the researchers’ conclusions here, but the good news is that six boxes of documents await anyone who wants to know more. To gain access, or to view the finding aid that indexes the Hungarian-American project archive, visit our website at http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.