Tom Carroll – Part II

The following is Part II of the interview with Tom Carroll, featuring the WHERE and for WHOM of his work – and some sample projects:

Click here to read Part I of the interview with Tom


In 1992 Tom finished up his doctoral work and for the next two-plus decades he devoted himself to working with communities all over the Northeastern United States from the mid-Atlantic up through New England, or as he put it “from Virginia to Maine, that was how it panned out.” As a self-employed sole proprietor, Tom took jobs wherever he could find them, and “there was enough work constantly.” And he always got his reports done in a timely manner. Sometimes this meant writing up a project on the way home from fieldwork so that he could diligently pursue the next opportunity which seemed to be fast on the heels of the last one.

He worked with state arts commissions and historical commissions, for museums and historical societies, and for government agencies at the county, local, state, and federal levels. He was brought in to help them document some aspect of their community, typically related to the question of social change, transformation, or disruption. His role is not to make a lot of distinctions between traditional culture and mainstream, because they are interrelated and penetrate one another. Whether speaking to a business owner or a scientist, a farmer or fisherman, established people and immigrants, from poor to rich – the work reflects some larger process, and his role is to capture and document well-established and shifting cultural patterns as they happen.

For one project, he worked with the Regional History Center at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, who were seeking to set up a center based on regional ethnography to more strongly link the historical organization to the regional community.  For another, in Maine, he was brought in by the traditional arts coordinator at the Maine Arts Commission to work on a series of projects. These were county-based projects called “discovery research” projects, which meant that a committee would apply for a discovery research grant and then the commission would assign a folklorist to work with them to identify local cultural resources, ideally leading to some meaningful result, such as a crafts cooperative or some other local initiative. These could become retail cooperatives, and ultimately were a way to build community. These often were about finding ways of integrating new arrivals into the community and connecting them to local resources, but they also were about supporting the more well-established artistic practices and products that had evolved locally.

In some cases, the challenge was to discover how the established communities were being affected by newcomers (for example, immigrants from Africa, or Southeast Asia, or the Middle East). The arrival of these groups was impacting their communities, but in different ways, as processes of acclimation differed from community to community. But Tom’s work was also about helping communities to understand the importance of cultural sensitivity attending both to the needs of those who were arriving, and to the needs of people who had been there. In some cases, people were being displaced. For example, among fishing communities along the coast of Maine, lobstermen were being displaced by tourists or people from “away” who were acquiring coastal properties and affecting access to water.

In the Adirondacks, he worked with people in traditional communities who were hunting on paper mill lands, and within the “blue line” that marked the boundaries of the Adirondack Park. Historically, they would lease the land from the paper company, build a small camp, hunt and have access to game.  But then when the paper companies started selling off their land, the new owners – who might be the state or federal government — would sometimes post the property against hunters. When he would speak with these hunters, what they would express to him was “we go to town meetings and there would be these slick people representing the case and we would just be mad!” They felt powerless. The fieldwork process in this case helped local people more fully articulate their case collectively – their history – and identify ways to enter them into public discourse.