A Letter in Defense of Folklore

by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 685, Fall 2001, taught by Nyla Fujii-Babb

----- Original Message -----
From: Zach Tomaszewski <snarkdreams@hotmail.com>
To: Jesse <jesse@somelibrary.org>
Sent: Tuesday, December 11, 2001 3:33 PM
Subject: lunch and folklore


It was great to have lunch with you again. It sure is nice to keep contacts in the library profession. I must say I'm sorry to hear about your patron complaints about the folklore collection. You asked me my opinion on reducing the funds that go to purchasing folklore. In short, I oppose the idea.

First of all, editing your collection or selection policy due to complaints from community members like this is essentially censorship. Directly from the ALA Library Bill of Rights (http://www.ala.org/work/freedom/lbr.html):

"Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation."

"Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."

Folklore is essential to a balanced collection. Even moving the offending works out of the children's department abridges access to materials based on age.

The right to intellectual freedom is reason alone to keep the folklore on your shelves. But in this case, there are further pressing reasons. Folklore is a vital part of any culture. The word "folklore" itself shows this: it is the lore--legends, myths, tales, rumor, jokes, and idiosyncrasies--of a folk or people. The stories of George Washington and the cherry tree, of Betsy Ross and the flag, of Davy Crocket and Johnny Appleseed, of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan are examples of American folklore; and they are part of our American heritage. They show what we prize as a people: honesty, hard work, ingenuity, independence. A culture's stories will give you more insight into its people than any dry textbook or encyclopedia entry.

Folklore teaches morals. Evil--whether greed, cruelty, or stupidity--leads to a horrible end. Good--whether intelligence, generosity, or compassion--leads to a happily-ever-after. But beside the big "be good," they also teach smaller virtues along the way. For example, the story "Why the Sky is Far Away," originally from Nigeria, teaches the virtue of conserving natural resources.

Folklore taps into a collective unconsciousness. There are certain archetypes: the maiden in distress, the handsome rescuing prince, the wicked stepmother, the troll in the woods. These motifs occur in dozens of tales around the globe, and not only in stories. As I write this, there is an old Steppenwolf song playing on my radio:

"Your wall's too high, I can't see
Can't seem to reach you, can't set you free.
If you can hear me, follow the sound
help me tear your wall down to the ground."

Isn't this really the same tale as Sleeping Beauty, or even more accurately, Rapunzel? But I doubt John Kay was thinking about folklore when he was writing the song, because the idea of locking ourselves away behind walls that can only be broken down by the right love is such a bedrock image in our society. (If you're interested in learning more about the unconscious in folklore, I'd suggest picking up some Joseph Campbell.)

So while folklore displays certain characteristics of the culture of its origin, there are these underlying motifs that also show the commonality between all peoples. It is through these common themes that folklore crosses boundaries. If a child (or an adult for that matter) can understand and enjoy a tale from the Ashanti people of Africa, even if she has never left Missouri, that is, at least in some small way, is spreading a cultural awareness.

On a more tangible level, folklore provides a basis for other literature. Every reference to a fanciful creature such as a centaur, selkie, mermaid or nymph depends on some knowledge of folklore. Great works like The Odyssey and Beowulf depend on understand the myths, gods, and culture they come from. Renaissance art depicts Greek and Roman myths. Tales are the source of certain words; for example, narcissism and tantalize both come from Greek myths. Even current movies and shows refer to ancient stories. In the recent movie Pi, the obsessed mathematician protagonist, Max, goes to see his old Russian mentor, Saul. During their conversation, Saul pauses to feed his fish. He comments, "Have you seen my new fish? I named him Icarus, after you, my prize pupil. You fly too high. You will get burned." There is no other explanation in the movie about this reference, but to anyone who knows The Flight of Icarus and Daedalus will understand the layers of meaning here: that if you fail to listen to good advice and rely only on your own youth and strength, it will bring your downfall.

With all this discussion of the benefits and uses of folklore, we sometimes forget that reading folklore is an end in itself. The stories are from the people themselves and have stood the test of time, passed down through the generations. They have a rich, beautiful language all their own. They are tales of magic, mystery, and heroism that are a joy in themselves.

With all this in mind, I hope your reconsider the idea of cutting folklore from you collection. It's important that it be available to people of all ages.

Are you free on the fifth of next month for lunch again? My treat this time. Sushi perhaps? :) Take care, and good luck in the trenches.


Zach Tomaszewski.