Jerome Robbins and the NYPL: How can dance, history, and politics interact in an archival context?

The task of archiving dance is notoriously sisyphean. As an inherently ephemeral medium, what constraints is dance archiving subject to, and how can those be overcome? Further, choreographers are historically “behind the scenes,” not often subject to the scrutiny and celebration of performers. How can the the collection of a single choreographer provide a point of access to the history of New York City and marginalized communities? What cataloguing methods should be adopted for this task, and how do we situate these items in the context of an academic library setting? All of these questions are considered in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

In the most recent exhibition “Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins” and New York, curator Julia Foulkes presents Robbins’ life story through an intersectional lens, combining urban history, media studies, art history, and sociology. She includes images, diaries, correspondence. Through her choice of pieces and organization, Foulkes provides a necessary political and social angle to the collection. She states that one of her organizing principles was to focus on Robbins himself rather than simply his work. In contextualizing his life as a gay, Jewish person in a rapidly developing city post-World War Two, Robbins’ work gains more dimension and footing in history. The exhibition is just a snapshot at what potentials dance and choreography archives have to offer, and new frameworks to consider in their organization. It made me curious about the Jerome Robbins Division as a whole.

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The Jerome Robbins Papers are a small section of the division donated in 2003. Consisting of 578 boxes, the papers consist of any written documentation pertaining to Robbins’ work: correspondence, scripts, scores, set designs, financials, and production materials, spanning 1930 to 2001 (the bulk being from 1940 to 1998). The papers are arranged into 11 box series, with 16 subseries, each box alphabetized. Within each box, the papers are filed chronologically. While the finding aid prepared provided invaluable descriptions of each box, I found the organization of the papers to be arcane. Only 2 items are digitized and accessible via the internet, and the finding aid contains no guide to a controlled vocabulary. This makes sense, given the date the collection’s processing was finalized (2003). But in its current state, the collection remains impenetrable to the Robbins illiterate, myself included.

I’m curious to see how a semantic approach could provide more points of access to both Robbins’ work and life, and if linked data could make the collection more dynamic. An expansion of controlled vocabulary and wider digitization would make it possible to engage with Robbins’ work in different contexts. I believe that archives should never be a unilateral medium, and the Jerome Robbins Division (more specifically, the papers) provide the opportunity to interrogate the relationships between dance, identity, and urbanization, rather than simply focusing on Robbins’ creative output.  As Foulkes proved in her choice of arrangement, it is indeed possible to do this.

-Sarah Goldfarb, INFO 653-01

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Posted in Archives, Cataloging, Classification, Libraries, Linked Open Data, Preservation, Uncategorized

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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