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Vol 39  No 1
Aug. 10, 2006



In Brief

Letter to the Editor


News & Notes


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Papers & Presentations


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A treasure of traditional and contemporary lore

By Hannah R. Mahoney
Special to the Gazette

Like a treasure chest or a family heirloom, the Folklore Department is filled with untold riches and echoes of times long ago. Raise the lid and stories emerge of lives lived, customs practiced, wisdom passed down. The stories tumble out in pictures, faded and yellowed by the passage of time; others float on the air, fiddles and accordions a backdrop to voices distant and long gone, but kept alive here.

The department was founded in 1968 by Dr. Herbert Halpert, who arrived in Newfoundland in 1962. His interest in folklore, which took root in his teens, led him to undertake fieldwork on childlore. For his MA in Anthropology, he compiled Folk Rhymes of New York City Children at Columbia University. His doctoral dissertation, Folktales and Legends from the New Jersey Pines: A Collection and Study, was done at Indiana University.

At Memorial, the study of folklore began under the auspices of the English Department. From the onset, Dr. Halpert instructed his students to write on such topics as “growing up in my community.” Through these writings he gathered information on life in rural Newfoundland and elements of folklore inherent to that experience.

Bridget O’Connell (seated), a visiting student researcher from the Waterford Institute of Technology, gets some help from Vanessa Rice, archival assistant with Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA).

Back when Folklore courses spanned a year, Christmas vacation cut through the middle and students returned to class to write their own stories of local customs. They shared such traditions as mummering, the singing of songs and ballads, and descriptions of food, drink and aspects of everyday life. Many of these papers consisted of interviews with their parents, grandparents and others within the community. The tales often bridged centuries. This became the foundation of Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA).

While Newfoundland and Labrador folklore was initially the core emphasis, the department has increasingly become more international and focused on contemporary culture.

Dr. Martin Lovelace is the current head of the Department of Folklore. He first came to Memorial as a student where he completed both his MA and PhD in Folklore before becoming a faculty member.

“I think the discipline has shifted, in terms of its interest,” explained Dr. Martin Lovelace, head of the Department of Folklore. “There has been an increasing interest in popular and contemporary culture and it is getting harder and harder to interest students on topics that they see as old fashioned. There are students who will tell you that the old stuff is gone, which is not correct at all. Often people have gone out and found to their great surprise that many of these much older traditions are persisting.”

As well as the old material there are contemporary and emergent kinds of folklore.

In the late ’60s, folklorists began to recognize that folklore applied to everyone, that an individual living in downtown Toronto was also part of the country’s folklore. Stockbrokers, for instance, had their tales of major deals, their own stories and customs that pass between them. While the idea of urban lore is relatively new, the stuff that urban or contemporary legend is made of is often based on themes that have been around for hundreds of years.

As Dr. Lovelace noted: “It is only natural and proper that our students will want to look at all the potential parameters of this notion of folklore.”

Memorial is the only university in Canada that offers an undergraduate, masters and doctorate of philosophy degree in folklore. Memorial’s folklore archive has grown dramatically since the early days, evolving into a multi media archive. According to MUNFLA Archivist Patricia Fulton, it is known as the premier sound archive in Atlantic Canada. There are 28,000 numbered recordings and many more that have not yet been catalogued. Also, there are about 40,000 audio recordings, upwards of 700 video recordings and well over 16,000 manuscripts, student papers, photographs and other materials. The survey cards number in the tens of thousands. In addition, there is an impressive collection of 13,000 CBC audio recordings, donated by CBN (CBC St. John’s) in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Sharon Cochrane, the longtime administrative secretary in the Department of Folklore has seen many changes in the unit during her time at Memorial. Today, the department has nine faculty members and a staff of six, two of whom are part-time

In order to get grant funding, archives must be consistent with RAD (Rules for Archival Description). The Canadian rules resulted from a workshop in Ottawa in the 1980s. Canadian archivists worked together to develop a standard which was adopted much later on. This endeavour was an attempt to create consistency so that researchers could find a constant, uniform system throughout any Canadian archive. “The rules of archival description change over a period of time so the archivist has had to adapt and that meant going back over previous materials to bring those already catalogued into synchrony with this new set of rules for archival description,” said Ms. Fulton.

Because any recording is subject to deterioration over time, much of the archive’s material is kept in a temperature controlled room to preserve the originals as long as possible. The constant migration from one media form to another also assists in this preservation. The rise of digital technology will see many of the older, original recordings preserved on this medium and, at the same time, will help address the constant demand for more space.

Memorial’s Folklore Department represents a great cultural resource. While the archive is not dedicated exclusively to Newfoundland and Labrador folklore, there is a sense that the heartbeat of Newfoundland resounds in the richness of the material and the knowledge it conveys, echoing across generations. Today, it continues to beat loud and strong for all those who choose to listen.

Hannah R. Mahoney is a student currently enrolled in CompuCollege's Public Relations Graduate Diploma Program in St. John's.


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