Appraising the Records of an Artist and an Organization

selfie with records transferred to the Newberry

selfie with records transferred to the Newberry

As you can see from my archives selfie, the Ruth Page Papers and the Ruth Page Foundation records in their nice new boxes have been transferred to their climate controlled home in 3A Row 42.  Intrepid Newberry archivist Alison Hinderliter and I managed to move all 50 boxes and assorted items to the stacks in between rain showers today with minimum damage to ourselves and the four elevators we had to navigate between the basement of the Ruth Page Center and the Newberry stacks.  This project has been a wonderful learning experience in appraising multiple types of records: personal, business, and creative works, and I’m pretty geeked to see these boxes on the Newberry shelves.

Of the two collections the materials from the Ruth Page Papers were a bit easier to appraise because the collection encompasses all of her activities until her death.  All of the evidence of her individual and collaborative creative projects, which was often intertwined with records from her personal relationships, could be included. Everything in the boxes had some relevance, I only had to weed things that contained information replicated in other records (cancelled checks, daily deposit forms, duplicates), or that the Newberry deems inappropriate (medical records, moldy materials).

The material from the Ruth Page Foundation Records proved a bit more difficult to appraise.  I first had to determine if the records were from the last seven fiscal years, making them necessary for audits. These records were rehoused and labeled, but left intact at the foundation. Then I had to determine if the records were from the activities of the foundation or the activities of Venetia Stifler, who has been the Executive Director for the last fourteen years.  She is a dancer, a college professor at NEIU, and runs her own performance company (CDI) that rehearses at the Ruth Page Center. This already difficult task was compounded by the multiple performance entities named for Ruth Page, including the Ruth Page Festival of Dance at Ravinia, the Ruth Page Dance Series presented at NEIU, the Ruth Page Civic Ballet, the Ruth Page School of Dance, and the Ruth Page Center for Dance. Some of these entities are part of the foundation, some are partially supported by the foundation, and some involve staff from the foundation. The Ruth Page Foundation also provides office space for several performance companies in residence, rents rehearsal space to companies, and rents out their small in house theater, so varying levels of information about all of these other companies are also included in the foundation records. Whew!

The structure of arts organizations mimics other types of organizations, but there seems to be a greater level of porosity in the roles and duties of staff members. Especially in small arts organizations with limited staff, people frequently change jobs or their job title changes, they perform a wide range of tasks that might not seem to match their job title, and there can be a lot of turnover when salaries are low. Talking to staff who have long term relationships with the organization can be extremely helpful, and they usually enjoy sharing their knowledge of the organization as well as  personal anecdotes that can be very entertaining.  Consulting with staff at the Ruth Page Foundation was one of the most enjoyable aspects of working on this appraisal. At the beginning of the project I explained the work I was doing in their “archives” (ie: the basement) which made it easy for me to ask them to identify some items, find some records they needed and had been unable to locate, and share items I thought they would enjoy seeing. As I wrap up this project, I believe more strongly than ever in the importance of building relationships between archives and the creative community. I’m so glad I was able to help the staff use some of their hidden archival materials  and I hope their positive experience influences others in the Chicago creative community to engage with the Newberry Library or other local archives.



Practicum at the Ruth Page Center: Appraisal, Rehousing, and Transfer of a Collection

Ruth Page Center archive in old vault

Ruth Page Center archive in old vault

My DHC practicum is to appraise, rehouse, and ready for transfer materials in the archive of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, conveniently located one block north of the Newberry Library.  This practicum is directly related to and informed by the six weeks I spent processing materials from the Ruth Page Papers already at the Newberry Library.  The appraisal process involves deciding which materials should become part of the existing Ruth Page Papers collection, which materials should be part of the new Ruth Page Foundation collection (an ongoing donation), and which materials should remain at the Ruth Page Center either for fiscal, business or marketing needs, or for disposal.  I’m very glad to have entered this project with some knowledge of the organization, otherwise it would have been so much more difficult to embark on my first appraisal, the subject of an entire class and many heated debates at the iSchool of UT Austin. The pressure is lessened by the fact that the agreement for an ongoing donation and the close proximity makes it fairly easy for Newberry Staff to transfer materials later that I decide should remain at the RPC. However, the reality of constraints on staffing, time, and budget mean the decisions I make in this appraisal will determine not only what is available to researchers in the forseeable future, but what materials will be preserved. There has already been some material damaged from flooding that can’t be saved.

Ruth Page Center Marketing Archive

Ruth Page Center Marketing Archive

The Ruth Page Center building was originally a lodge for the Loyal Order of Moose fraternal organization, with multiple restaurant, bar, and party facilities.  The basement was the kitchen area, which has not seen much remodeling, and the Marketing Archive is in one of the old walk-in coolers.  The wood paneling and shelves in the walk-in remind me of a boat, and would be the envy of an architectural salvager, but the metal flooring creaks and pops as I walk around and it’s a bit claustrophobic in there. I have to move each box out of the cooler to sort and rehouse the materials.

door to vault in Ruth Page Center basement

door to vault in Ruth Page Center basement

The Business Archive, which contains the majority of the material is in the old vault in the back corner of the basement.I can hear the music from classes, but it feels like a different world.  It’s dusty and not very well lit and the clown doll at the back is a little creepy, but there is enough space for me to set up a table, and I don’t have to move the boxes out for sorting. Strangely enough I can still get a phone signal down here if I hold my phone by the door. There are few distractions as I work, but I take frequent breaks to let my eyes see a little sunlight and breathe non-dusty air. The breaks also help me reflect on my work and I have gone back to reverse a few decisions.  I am trying to err on the side of caution and am taking copious notes on decisions I make during the appraisal process, so people working on or using the collections will know what is not included.

Say hello to my little friend

Final Weeks: So Many Photographs!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My last weeks at the Newberry processing the Ruth Page Papers mainly focused on organizing the multitude of photographs in the collection.  As I mentioned earlier Page was no slouch at self documentation both at work and at play.  She travelled widely and her social circle included creative types (dancers, artists, musicians), members of the hoi polloi who fund the arts, and family, so the variety of images was a bit daunting to organize, but they were so interesting and beautiful!

The photographs from her productions were fairly straightforward once I knew the name of the piece, which could be tricky if Page had changed the name (a not infrequent phenomenon), but working on the sound recordings and productions series had helped me resolve some of these issues beforehand.  There was often material from multiple iterations of the same piece, which resulted in some redundancy in files, but I think researchers will appreciate being able to differentiate between them.  Organizing the personal photographs posed more of a challenge for me until my supervisor suggested I use another collection at the Newberry (the Ann Barzel Papers) with similar materials as a guide for both groupings and folder naming. This might seem like common knowledge, but for the new archivist this is a real lightbulb moment of discovery.  I’m glad I worked on the photographs last, because I was able to use the subject knowledge gained from processing other series to help figure out date range and content of several unlabelled photographs.

The majority of photographs in this collection, which spans the years from 1905 to 1991,  are labelled in Page’s handwriting, usually in ink pen.  The handwriting, questionmarks after some of the dates, and the fact that portraits from her childhood are labelled in her adult handwriting, indicate she identified large chunks of material long after the photos were taken.  I wonder what prompted her to undertake the task of identifying all these photos, and I hope she enjoyed the memories they evoked as she handled them.

I certainly enjoyed the challenge of organizing the photographs and appreciated the opportunity to view them as both evidence of performance history and aesthetic objects. Photographs are incapable of capturing movement, which is the very essence of dance, yet they are still a crucial resource in performance archives, even if moving images are part of the collection.  The visual information captured in each tiny slice of time can convey a sense of movement and personality of the performer as well as transmit essential information about production design in a format that doesn’t require frequent migration if handled properly.  I hope performers continue to make photographic prints in our increasingly digital age, our archives will certainly be less rich without them.

Sound and Vision

Ruth Page was a prolific choreographer, inspired by many genres of music and even spoken poetry, so it was no suprise to find sound recordings in most of the formats available from the 1920’s to the 1980’s in this collection.  She was a leader in the dance world in creating work based on contemporary popular culture, and she didn’t shy away from being controversial or brooking the codes of moral acceptability. One of the oldest recordings in the collection is “Too Much Mustard” from her early work “The Flapper and the Quarterback.”  Some of the stories in her work might seem dated, but the themes of equality for women, racism, violence, and sexuality still translate well for a modern audience.   “Frankie and Johnny,” one of her most successful and enduring works, is based on a popular ballad about a woman wronged by her cheating lover, who takes her revenge by shooting him, and then drinks a beer over his coffin. It caused quite a stir and was heavily censored when it premiered in 1938, not just in the provinces, but also in the den of iniquity known as New York City.

Ruth regularly commissioned work from composers (she commissioned Aaron Copland to write “Hear Ye, Hear Ye!, his first ballet score) and she used whatever cutting edge technologies were available to make sound and visual recordings. Her 1922 film of Danse Macabre used special effects and was the first known dance film with synchronized sound. The collection was partially processed when I started working, and most of the films had already been transferred to the Chicago Film Archive, where they were digitized and made available online ( Ruth Page films).   The sound recordings had only been partially processed, so I created an inventory with condition notes of the 280 items on disc, reels, and cassettes.  Many of the recordings need to be cleaned of mildew and dust or treated for sticky shed syndrome, but most seem to be still playable, which is pretty amazing considering the age and storage condition of the materials. I also found thirty more film and video recordings on 8mm, 16mm, V-32, U-Matic, Beta, and VHS  in unprocessed cartons of material, so the holdings of the Chicago film Archives might be expanding soon…

Here are a few images from 180 sound recordings in the Ruth Page Papers:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Body, Mind, Artifact: Reimagining Collections


Reception at the French Consulate

Wow, how time flies! I can’t believe a few weeks have passed since I was in NYC for the SIBMAS TLA conference Body, Mind, Artifact: Reimagining Collections with a group of 100 archivists, librarians, educators, and from Europe and North America. (SIBMAS is the International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts and TLA is the Theater Library Association.) My mind is still trying to process all the ideas about archives of performance that were discussed in conference sessions and at receptions and visits to New York archives. The conference focused heavily on two areas of interest to me: archiving dance and objects in archival collections.

In one of my favorite sessions speakers addressed the thorny question what are we preserving when we archive dance, especially when the dance involves non specific choreography? What is the best way to capture the movement of dance? Traditional two dimensional media, such as photography and stationary videotaping, only captures part of the information, and a single iteration of a dance work. The speakers in the session discussed capturing breath patterns, recording spatial patterns (digital scoring), using motion capture film, and preserving the recordings from rehearsal sessions where the choreography was developed (referred to as scratch films) as means of archiving dance.  These are some of the projects discussed: Siobahn Davies Replay and the Deborah Hay site Motion Bank.

Another session that really sparked my interest was the keynote address about artifacts in the archive by Marvin Taylor. He used the example of the “magic box” in the David Wojnarowicz papers, a wooden fruit crate filled with 59 natural and commercial objects. Because of the apparent randomness and lack of value of the objects in the box, it might seem to be a worthless collection of junk, but actually they formed a personal iconography for the artist, who frequently used the objects as inspiration for his artworks. Taylor also discussed a black leather jacket in an archival collection and the ways an article of clothing embodies the loss that is inherent in archives, both the loss of the physical person who is gone and the physical sensation of loss that comes from the situation of memory in our physical bodies.  Taylor is a wonderful speaker, who has clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about issues I have just begun to research. and I can’t wait to read the book he’s publishing on the history of the black leather jacket.

A few other ideas I’ve been considering since the SIBMAS/TLA conference:

-Dancers/choreographers tend to have an aversion to the word archive because it indicates their career is over.

-The line between a reproduction, a re-iteration, and a new dance work is incredibly difficult to define, especially when choreography is learned through oral transmission.

-who is controlling controlled vocabularies?

-what qualities are most essential to dance and which of these qualities can be, or should be preserved?

You will have to ponder these questions for yourself, I have some processing on the Ruth Page papers to finish, but please  share your thoughts in the comments.



Week 1: Ruth Page Scrapbooks


Ruth Page scrapbook

Ruth Page scrapbook

I have a soft spot in my archivist heart for scrapbooks. The combination of photographs, clippings, souvenirs, programs, and decorative elements, arranged and affixed according to the aesthetic or organizational proclivities of the scrabook maker offers  the reader a unique and highly personal view of history. History isn’t just a series of big events that happen to important people, but the accumulation of many small events happening to people from every walk of life, so these personal glimses of the past are invaluable resources for researchers.

Unfortunately the fragile, unstable, nature of scrapbooks makes them a real challenge for preservation.  The pages of the books are often made of acidic papers, sometimes covered with unstable plastics or even worse, adhesive coated “magic cling” pages, that stain and destabilize the materials the creator was trying to preserve.  The contents of scrapbooks are attached with tapes and glues that break down and can stain materials, and become brittle, tacky or oily, or with metal clips and pins that rust. (warning: if you plan to handle old scrapbooks make sure to get your tetanus shots!)  The varied materials in scrapbooks can also can be attractive to pests that destroy information as they snack or make their nest. (another warning: you might want to wear gloves if you aren’t sure where the scrapbooks have been stored) Removing the contents from the book for preservation can destroy the context and often any sense of personality of the maker is lost. So, all an archivist can do is try to slow the rate of decay with proper housings, some interleaving with acid free papers, and try to control the twin forces of archival evil: temperature and humidity fluctuation.

I had a rather wonderful time my first week at the Newberry Library working with the multiple scrapbooks in the Ruth Page collection. She was a fascinating figure in the history of modern dance in America and the cultural history of Chicago. Most of the scrapbooks in the collection do not have a distinct aesthetic style, but the materials appear to be chosen and collected by Ruth Page herself, and many have notations in her handwriting.   As I assessed and rehoused the scrapbooks I encountered all the evils mentioned above (except pests-hooray!), but I found so many beautiful images and such interesting content about her career and her life, in addition to other social and historical content from the 1910’s through the 1980’s, it was an absolute pleasure working with the materials. These are some of my favorite images from the Ruth Page scrapbooks:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


DHC Orientation


To bean or not to bean: the 2014 cohort in Chicago

I’ve had such a wonderful week at the Dance Heritage Coalition 2014 Fellowship orientation in Chicago.  Libby and Imogen, our hosts from DHC, arranged site visits to amazing Chicago archives, provided opportunities to assess the archival needs of local dance companies,  and fed us some fantastic food, but the best part was spending time with other fledgling archivists who share my interest in performing arts archives.


Day one at the Newberry

We started our training at the Newberry Library, where Alison Hinderliter gave us a tour of the stacks and treated us to a private viewing of some of the Newberry’s dance collections. It thrilled my archivist heart to see items from a dancer who performed at the World’s Fair in 1893, leaf through dance photos from the early 1900’s, and see Pavlova’s toe shoes and a plaster cast of her face.  One of things I love most about archives is they provide the opportunity to interact directly with history through use of original historical records. In archives researchers can select any records from the collections they want to view and usually handle those items directly, as opposed to museums, where a curated selection of items is presented in a display that keeps viewers at a distance.  Interacting with the items at the Newberry gave me a feeling of being connected to dance history, and made me even more excited to work in performance archives. I am really looking forward to training at the Newberry, and can’t wait to get back in those stacks!


Talking about film preservation at Chicago Film Archive

We also had a great time at Chicago Film Archives, which is dedicated to preserving the history of filmmaking in the Midwest.  Archive director Nancy Watrous took us on a tour of their vault and patiently answered all of our questions about the history of the archive, film preservation, aquiring collections, digitization, and issues involved with making film content available to the public. We had a very interesting discussion about how to present historical dance footage to a modern audience in a manner that builds interest and appetite for the material while respecting the original intent of the choreographers and dancers. It broadened my perspective on historical film and I hope to see some of their programming this summer while I’m in Chicago.

Lotus gives JRJP staff information about archiving social media

Lotus gives staff at JRJP information about archiving social media

Our visits to assess archival needs of Chicago dance companies gave us the opportunity to discuss the everyday practices and needs of dance companies in regards to their records and archival materials. Both Natya Dance Theater and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project were very generous with their time and answered all of our questions thoughtfully and thoroughly.  Obsolete audiovisual formats seems to be the biggest archival issue for both of these companies, and I suspect it will be the greatest challenge for all of us as we begin our careers working with performance archives.

I am extremely grateful to have this chance to train with professionals with so much experience, to work on an archival project with Ruth Page records,  and to have such a wonderful instant support network of DHC staff and 2014 Fellows!