The Folklore Of The Future? It’s Meme Culture

Memes are shaping culture, language, and politics. And the Library of Congress is archiving it all.

The Folklore Of The Future? It’s Meme Culture
[Source Images: TU-KA/iStock, YTMND, Facebook, 20th Century Fox, I can has cheezeburger]

The Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center has archived ethnographies of Appalachian coal country, folk music from New Deal-era California, and lectures on the quinceañera in Latino communities in Texas. It also contains archives of Know Your Meme, image macros, and GIFs. And some Facebook emoji.


Memes may not appear to fit the bill of “folklore,” but can you name a more telling folk expression in America today?

Established in the 1970s, the Folklife Center contains a broad range of ethnographic materials like oral histories and songs–and now, websites and memes. Last month, the project went live on the Library of Congress’s site as the Web Cultures Web Archive, a searchable database of websites ranging from American Cosplay Paradise to Giphy, as noted by Hyperallergic.

[Screenshot: Library of Congress]
In fact, the Library of Congress has been archiving web content since 2000, when a small pilot project documented websites associated with the presidential election, explains Abigail Grotke, who leads the library’s Web Archiving Team. Just a year later, as they were gearing up to test the same approach to web archiving for the 2002 midterm elections, 9/11 dramatically changed the project’s scope. “It became clear we had to do this and couldn’t stop,” Grotke says. “So much was unfolding on the web at the time… that kind of event hadn’t really been documented on the internet before.”

By 2014, the Folklife Center had archived some 419 spam emails as part of its mission to preserve the “folk expression on the web,” a collection that grew to more than a linear foot of printed-out emails. Today, Grotke and her team, along with the Internet Archive, use open source tools including web crawlers to preserve content online as it evolves–archiving it on the library’s servers, rather than printing it out. While experts are welcome to nominate sites for archiving, the Folklife Center’s curators make the selections, and decide how often a given site should be archived. The new freely searchable database of archived content only contains a small amount of their work.

The archive is part of a growing movement in the academic world that considers meme culture as folklore–and studies it as such. The image macros you might find on Instagram or the lolspeak you come across on Imgur might seem incongruous with the way we think about folklore today. But the Folklife Center’s Nicole Saylor, writing in a blog post last month, points to an interview with two internet scholars, Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, who explain the parallels:

Because folkloric expression falls outside of or stands in some degree of conflict with formal culture, a significant percentage of this expression is quite literally not safe for work (or school, or church, or any other seat of institutional power); American folklorist Barre Toelken, for example, estimates that up to 80% of folkloric content is obscene, or at least would be regarded as such by outsiders looking in.

When John Adams gave the young Library of Congress $5,000 to buy “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress” in 1800, he likely never imagined what that congress–or media–would look like in 2017. But as meme culture shapes the contours of national politics, it’s easy to imagine that he’d want it archived, too.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.