NYPL’s Dance Collection: Looking Back

Agnes de Mille, whom Genevieve Oswald considered “a born archivist.”

The New York Public Library is the second largest library in the United States, only behind the Library of Congress. My DHC fellowship project environment is a large institutional setting with multiple divisions and groups. In my work at the Dance Division, I work with curators, the NYPL rights analyst, the web/information technology group, and moving image preservationists. Additionally, my project relies on the work of staff members in special formats processing, cataloging, NYPL Labs, off-site storage facilities, and the video playback room. Recently, I had the chance to visit PAMI (preservation of audio and moving image) and NYPL Labs.

Although NYPL today is this sprawling, vast institution, I was brought back to ground zero of the dance division this week with a beautifully written, nearly 40-page article from Dance Chronicle on Genevieve Oswald,1 who founded and shaped NYPL’s dance collection and archive when she was hired in 1947. The article provides insight on why American modern dance became a formative influence of the collection, how personal rivalries between dance companies interfered with documentation and collection, some insecurities artists had with their work being discovered and researched, and how Oswald helped choreographers understand the invaluable service that libraries provide in research and reference. I learned that in addition to donations made by individual artists, Lincoln Kirstein’s 1941 initiative to create a repository and center for dance research didn’t pick up enough support, so these materials were donated to the NYPL’s quickly growing collection.

Alvin Ailey: “I am black, but you know I am a dancer first.” Photo by Normand Maxon may be subject to copyright.

Oswald spent much of her time cultivating relationships with collectors and artists of the dance community and this article presents some great quotes regarding celebrated American choreographers. I love the quote by Ailey, who when deciding whether to leave his material to the Dance Collection or NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture said, “Well, I am black, but you know I am a dancer first.” Oswald reflects that Agnes de Mille “was a born archivist.” Before dancers had their own ad hoc learn-from-video sessions in company rehearsal, the public library would serve as their study room as in the case of Antony Tudor sending Natalia Makarova to watch his dance works on film prior to joining American Ballet Theatre.

This article is full of the unique stories from the early days of NYPL’s Dance Division, and walks through the development of this world-class establishment in which the dance community can and does take pride in. This article is a must read for any dancer or dance enthusiast!

1Lynn Matluck Brooks (2011): A Bold Step Forward: Genevieve Oswald and the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library, Dance Chronicle, 34:3, 447-486


One Response to NYPL’s Dance Collection: Looking Back

  1. katkimbell says:

    Thanks for sharing this great article! I look forward to getting to read the whole thing. Looks like if we consider how dance archives officially started (versus just being hidden in general collections), we might have a basis to better defend what we do now and how we can do it better.

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