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Department of Anthropology creates folk arts lending library for community members

January 13, 2009

Sara Miller
(315) 443-9038

Sara Miller

More than 650 books, journals and videos on folklore and folk arts-related topics have been donated to the Department of Anthropology in Syracuse University's Maxwell School by research professor and folklorist Felicia "Faye" McMahon, who began the collection in 1987 while working on her Ph.D. in folklore and folk life at the University of Pennsylvania.

The collection is intended for community members to assist them in documenting their own cultures, thereby ensuring the preservation of regional and transnational cultural resources. The collection will provide a community-based resource for use by the members of each cultural group. McMahon believes that a specialized folk arts library is a useful tool to assist community organizers in their efforts to communicate to the public an understanding of the primacy of culture in building civic capacity. Now permanently housed in Room 206A in Maxwell Hall, the collection will serve as the core of a lending library for members of the Central New York community.

The idea for a folk arts library accessible to community scholars evolved from the Department of Anthropology's Folk Arts Initiative, begun in 2005 and supported by a variety of external sponsors as well as the Office of the Chancellor. Christopher DeCorse, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, and McMahon consider the department to be in a unique position to provide both support for and acknowledgement of the cultural contributions of community members in Central New York. "These same community members have in turn provided invaluable experiences for our students," says McMahon.

For example, with her extensive 15-year community arts fieldwork, McMahon has introduced interested students to diverse local communities with whom she has worked. The students have interviewed traditional artists for several folk arts programs hosted by the Department of Anthropology, the Hildegarde and J. Myer Schine Student Center, the Community Folk Art Center, The Warehouse and the Mayfest Folk Arts Tent.

About her fieldwork experience, undergraduate Honors student Alena Johnson wrote, "Spending time with the DiDinga [community] and being welcomed into their homes was a very special experience. This project will be something I always remember."

Added her fieldwork partner, Kristen Cuomo: "Even if I won't be able to see the group again as much as I would like to, what I have learned from them will stay with me for the rest of my life."

After learning the DiDinga were trying to raise funds to build a school in their village in Sudan, Johnson applied for a U.Encounter grant to support a dance performance by the DiDinga at SU. On April 21, 2009, the performance will be videotaped and the DVD included in a separate collection of photographs, CDs and videos from McMahon's own fieldwork to be donated to the DiDinga for their school library.

In return for the gift of their time and knowledge, McMahon views these efforts as gestures of gratitude to community artists. "The Folk Arts Community Lending Library will be useful for all students of folklore in the identification and the exploration of the significant formative cultural fermentation going on right now in our regional landscape," she says. "Many, many times I received requests for books from traditional artists and musicians, and I would loan the books from my personal library in my home in Tully."

Folk ArtsOne of the books in the collection is "Voices of the Homeland" by Vietnamese calligrapher and traditional poet Vinh Dang (pictured, left, with anthropology student Hong Anh Vu) , who lives in Syracuse. The establishment of the Folk Arts Community Lending Library in the Department of Anthropology makes such books more visible and extends opportunities to more community members for their use. A lending library also enables the department to serve as an interdisciplinary node supporting the research and service of folk artists and traditional musicians who are scholars in their own right. "I can't think of a better use for these books than tools to help communities self-document their own cultures," says McMahon.

University and community members wishing to browse the collection should call the Folk Arts Initiative at 443-6231, ext. 1.

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