The Serious Side of Jokelore

The following is a guest post from Joshua Koepke (MA Candidate in Folklore and Ethnomusicology/MLS Candidate in the Luddy School of Informatics) as part of the spring course ILS-Z604/FOLK-F804 Folklore Archives in the Digital Age.

Photo of Josh Koepke seated at a table with a box of archival materials
Joshua Koepke, spring 2022

When discussing archival project options for a folklore class, my ears immediately perked up at the mention of a folklore joke collection here at Indiana University Bloomington. Not knowing much about the holdings besides being primarily from the late 1960s and early 1970s, my inner historian was excited at the prospect of period-specific jabs at Richard Nixon and “hippie” counterculture. When going through the collection, I encountered these political jokes, even plenty of one-liners concerning Spiro Agnew, which I’ll ponder upon in an upcoming entry. Not long into searching the extensive amassment of ethnic jokes and their corresponding documentation in this collection, my soul sank with the depressing reality of underlying prejudice influencing the deep stack of Polish American and African American jokes. My, often troubling time, working with this collection inspired an exploration on why this content is worthy of preservation and what archivists, folklorists, and historians can do to manage interactions with offensive collections.

Jokes reflect the social environments at the time of their creation, finding humor in critiques of events and social movements. The 1960s and 1970s saw the “… rise in the consciousness and assertion of ethnicity” with Polish and Black cultures in America.1 Rising racial tensions of this period were represented in jokes of the ethnic and racial variety as a way to reassert subordinate status.2 The ethnic jokes in the IU Folklore Institute Jokes collection proving no exception. The frequent use of blatantly derogatory language, among which was more than a fair share of poorly spelled variants, to enforce a hierarchy of superiority based on the lightness of skin were routinely thinly veiled as jokes. These need not be repeated here. Even more disheartening were interviews conducted by the students of the informants who told the jokes. In these, some joke tellers casually confessed their prejudices for minorities, like this African American joke teller, “Well, to be truthful, I don’t like them [in reference to African Americans]. It seems like they’re trying to interfere with everything…”,3 or another who set out to change the language of the African American joke they told to a more intolerant and explicit term, to which the folklore student eloquently surmised, “This, in itself, tells a great deal [for] the problems in society.”4 More bleak were the occasional students who agreed with racist thoughts put forward by the informants without critical analysis, like this student who interviewed their prejudicial friend:  

I must say that I agree with [name of informant redacted] in every psychological and sociological function of the items, although I am sure that several others would be violently opposed to what has been stated previously. I agree with [name of informant redacted] Mainly [sic] because we are very close friends and we share many interests and opinions. Therefore, I must conclude by saying that I couldn’t have said it better myself!!5

These issues and the often explicit language and racist imagery make this collection problematic to read, let alone curate. While it may be repulsive to modern users, the collection possesses value in documenting the racial and ethnic views of a segment of students at a pivotal time in civil rights history for America. Dr. Julia Rose coined the term “difficult histories” for historic materials with content of oppression and trauma which can make materials hard to digest for modern audiences. References to materials must be delicately interwoven to historic documentation nonetheless in order to confront revisionists and denialists and to hopefully encourage further work towards justice.6 

For historians, curators, and archivists, balancing access and description for difficult histories is problematic, and sparks different solutions depending on the archive. When facing the use of derogatory language and explicit racial content, the Dúchas team at the Irish National Folklore Collection decided to digitize materials but to leave blank any derogatory language from transcription practices, to allow for the restriction of entire pages, and to include a statement on the possible encountering of sensitive and offensive materials. Like Dúchas, Indiana University has a Harmful Language Statement located in the footer of their newly designed search portal. The IU Libraries also utilizes direct community feedback to report potential offensive content,7 like Dúchas, since the collections are extensive and archivists unfortunately cannot review everything. Here at IU, the University Archives and other archival units encourage the reporting of problems to the Harmful Language Report Form. Another tool at the disposal of professionals is the incorporation of content warnings on collections, so researchers know what to expect before opening boxes. 

Assistant Archivist note, August 2022

Collection C735 provided us an opportunity to use a burgeoning body of literature and professional practice related to reparative archival description. Although reparative description is intensive, archivists and other library and museum professionals have done an amazing job building central knowledge bases and communities to support the involved activities. We started with the Anti-Racist Description Resources document published by Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia (A4BLiP). A4BLiP’s annotated and extensive resource bibliography will open many doorways for anyone interested in learning more about reparative description. You can also stay up to date with harmful language and bias statements in libraries through the Cataloging Lab (list last updated August 2022).

While maintaining the original order of records (ie the organization, sequence, and description established by the creator) is a core tenant of the archives profession as it provides evidence of how records where used, ultimately, we decided to replace the outdated and harmful original “Negro” and “Polack” folder titles with the current, more appropriate terms “African American” and “Polish.” We reflected these folder heading changes in the finding aid as well. In addition to the concerns about offense that Joshua explained, updating terms also addressed the collection’s findability online–now, researchers don’t have to know to use outdated search terms to find these files. A warning about the content was also included in the Scope and Content Note of the collection.

As we move forward and develop more robust workflows for reparative description, we aim to be as transparent as possible (with each other at the Archives and with the public) about the changes we make. This includes internally tracking problematic finding aids, explaining curatorial decisions in finding aid notes, and receiving feedback through the Harmful Language Report Form.

If you have questions or concerns about this collection, harmful language, or reparative description in archives, please contact an archivist today!


1 Christie Davies, Jokes and Targets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 2.

2Davies, 7.

3Jokes: Ethnic: Negro: 70: 11-20 Instructor: Milspaw: Item 70:15, C735 Folklore Institute jokes, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

4Jokes: Ethnic: Negro: 70: 61-70 Instructors: Gutowski, Danielson: Item 70:66, C735 Folklore Institute jokes,, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

5Jokes: Ethnic: Negro: 70: 11-20 Instructor: Milspaw: Item 70:11, C735 Folklore Institute jokes, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

6Julia Rose, Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 24-29.

7“Copyright, digital preservation, sensitive material and contact,” Dúchas, https://www.duchas.ie/en/info/contact; Gearóid Ó Cleircín, Conchur Mag Eacháin, Anna Bale, “Managing the Digitization and Online Publication of Sensitive Heritage Material in the Dúchas Project,” New Review of Information Networking 20, (2015): 194-199, doi 10.1080/13614576.2015.1112613.