Laborlore: James P. Leary’s Public Folklore Class Explores the Culture of Icelandic Workers

Roadside sign guiding visitors to Bjarnahöfn. Photo by James P. Leary

Roadside sign guiding visitors to Bjarnahöfn, where hákarl is made. Photo by James P. Leary

One of the perks about being a Fulbrighter in Iceland is coming into contact with a handful of other students, scholars, and artists whose work and interests are completely far flung from my own, and getting to learn a little about their various passions and areas of expertise.

A good example of this is current Iceland Fulbright scholar James P. Leary, who is not only a very nice guy, but also a professor in the Folklore and Scandinavian Studies program at the University of Wisconsin and the co-director of The Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Per his university bio,

“I’m a folklorist who was born and raised in Rice Lake in northwestern Wisconsin. Since the early 1970s my research has focused on the traditional songs, stories, customary practices, and handwork of indigenous and immigrant peoples and their mostly rural and working class descendants in America’s Upper Midwest, resulting in numerous museum exhibits, folklife festivals, public radio programs, documentary sound recordings, films, essays, and…books…”

In Iceland, Jim’s project has been to teach a Public Folklore class at the University of Iceland, focusing on the lives and practices of Icelandic workers and tradespeople. (If you are unfamiliar with the term “public folklore,” as I was, you can check out this Wikipedia page, but in short, “Public folklorists are engaged with the documentation, preservation, and presentation of traditional forms of folk arts, craft, folk music, and other genres of traditional folklife. In later years, public folklorists have also become involved in economic and community development projects.”)

Public Folklore which concentrates on workers is called “Laborlore,” which, quoting a description on Jim’s class website, “consists of the cultural traditions of workers: their job-related personal histories and identities, as well as their informally acquired job skills, sayings, stories, customs, and material expressions.” So in their course this semester, Jim and his students went out and interviewed and photographed Icelandic workers from all social and trades strata:

  • The two paid employees and a volunteer who work at Kaffistofa Samhjálpar, a cafeteria established in the 80s for “outcast, homeless people and others with needs and without resources to take care of them selves financially and socially”
  • Two employees at a tourist information center which welcomes cruise ship passengers and many other visitors to Reykjavík and Iceland
  • A man who makes hákarl, the traditional cured (rotten) shark that you’ve doubtless heard so much about
  • A seamstress who has worked for Herrafataverslun Guðstein, a menswear shop founded in 1918, for 22 years
  • A fifth generation baker who brings his background in fine art to bear on traditional methods of bread baking
  • Three masons working on the restoration of Hannesarholt Cultural Center in Reykjavík
  • Three immigrants (one Polish, two Lithuanian) who work as janitors at the University of Iceland

Mark and I went to a presentation of the Public Folklore class’ findings last week, and it was really interesting to hear the insights they gained from their interviews with these workers. I’d highly recommend a quick (or not so quick) perusal of the class website-in-progress, Laborlore: The Culture of Icelandic Workers, where you’ll find photos, interview clips, and additional information about the project, which is being turned into a short series of radio programs on Icelandic radio (the interviews are also being archived in the National library). Although the interviews on the website are almost all in Icelandic, those with the janitorial staff are in English. Additionally, the photos are all really lovely and have some informational captions to give you a sense of what was discussed in each interview.

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