An ALA Retrospective, or How to Fit 20,000 Librarians in One Place

After a nice long pause on the blog, I’m back online. Part of the DHC’s fellowship involves professional advancement, and as part of that, I had the massively good fortune to go to the American Library Association’s Annual conference in Anaheim last weekend. I actually got to co-lead a discussion group, but more on that later.

The title of this entry refers to 20,000 librarians, which at first glance, seems ridiculous. 20,000 librarians? A gross exaggeration, surely. You’re completely right, there weren’t 20,000 librarians at ALA 2012.

There were 20,134.

Despite all my pre-reading, my programming list-making, and my copious amounts of business cards, I was completely unprepared for two things:

Firstly, the sheer blessed scale of the conference. Having attended the Illinois Library Association’s conference a couple years back, I thought I knew what to expect. A big conference center, to be sure, and two or three large hotels to manage overflow. Oh man, did I underestimate that. Easily a dozen hotels, a four-story conference center, and a constantly ebbing-and-flowing crowd of librarians. And, oh the librarians.

Secondly, I was unprepared for how welcoming, how friendly, how eager to help and willing to talk the conference attendees would be. It seems silly in retrospect, given that our entire profession is predicated on customer service, but I was overwhelmed. A librarian from Colorado Spring, whom I had never met, got my number from my aunt, called me, set up a time to talk about my professional aspirations, and squired me through the ins-and-outs of conference etiquette. I met another recent grad at the career centre who included me in a mentoring meeting so I could get resume advice. Presenters at the poster displays fell all over themselves to give me contact information so I could follow up with additional questions. It was like a family reunion, only with a family I’d never met before.

Along with the fellow from UCLA (you’re all following her LA blog, right?), I had a chance to present at the Dance Librarian Discussion Group under the Arts Council. Our presentation, “Thinking Beyond the Barre” (which how amazing is that title, by the way?), focused on how to justify processing dance-based collections within an institution and how to frame outreach programs. Increased visibility is increased access, after all. My main fear was speaking to an empty room, but people came! We had just enough to encourage lively debate, but not too many to discourage everyone speaking their piece. I came away with a deep and abiding need to write an article about my personal passion: participant dance, a subject woefully underrepresented in dance archives.

Final reflections? I’m chomping at the bit to get involved with larger ALA interworkings. Perhaps I’ll take on that opportunity for sitting on a committee about videogames in public libraries! We’ll see!

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The Bartleby Dilemma, or Handling Personally Objectionable Materials at Work

“I would prefer not to.”

It’s the refrain of Melville’s recalcitrant narrator in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and it’s on my mind this afternoon.

Yesterday at the museum, processing a collection which shall remain nameless, I stumbled across some material from the 1960s that used images and language which, for personal and political reasons, I found disturbing.  Disturbing enough, in fact, that I took a ten minute break to walk it off in the corridors outside. Out there, surrounded by carefully crafted displays on everything from Wagner’s Ring series to toy theater models, I was struck by how volatile the past can be and how close it actually is.

Professional archivists by necessity and definition work with the past. And the past, as many of you know, was awful. I’m not trying to be glib when I say that, either. I genuinely mean that large swathes of the past were flat-out horrifying and as an information professional, you’ll most likely come into contact with that uncomfortable truth sooner rather than later. Maybe it’s for religious, non-religious, political, or socio-economic reasons. Or maybe you end up finding something that plain old freaks you out. What happens when your reaction to processing an item or an entire collection is “I would prefer not to?” Whatever the reason, how do you handle processing personally objectionable items at work?

Obviously, if we only processed collections we liked and enjoyed from periods of time where everything was hunky-dory, we’d all be out of work in a week. We can’t simply not work on objectionable collections, but it is completely appropriate to acknowledge that archivists have feelings and opinions that can come into conflict with their work. Preservation efforts especially are painstakingly detail-oriented and time-consuming. It can be difficult to justify that amount of energy being spent of items that, given your own way, would never see the light of day again.

Like all personnel-related issues, this is going to depend on the “corporate culture” at your institution. I was lucky enough to be in an environment where it’s okay to react personally to the collections, one of the many benefits of being in an arts-based institution. Art is meant to inspire emotions, both positive and negative, and being surrounded by people who both understand and support those reactions makes it easy to navigate.

In less understanding situations, there are numerous ways to cope. I’ve written missives detailing my personal feelings, which, once emailed to myself, are promptly deleted. Heading outside for a breath of fresh air is another excellent coping mechanism. Even looking at sympathetic hedgehogs can be a stress reliever in the right circumstances.

The most important aspect of dealing with questionable, objectionable, or outright offensive materials is acknowledging that they can and do have a mental and emotional effect on the archivists involved. Even if you can’t talk out your discomfort at work, it makes a difference get that frustration out in other ways.

Go for a run. Rant to a friend over coffee. Build model airplanes. Whatever you do, reassure yourself that by processing this material, by acknowledging this material at all, you’re part of the solution. Education and access to information are the only way society progresses.

And progress is a bumpy road.

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Mission-centric Acquisitions, or Why is There a Framed Brassiere Next to my Desk?

Seriously though, did you?

Did you think I was kidding?

That is, in point of fact, a framed brassiere. Originally worn by a soprano in the Chicago Opera in 1918 during a production of The Barber of Seville, it is by no means the most unusual item at the Museum of Performance & Design.

In the Anna Halprin collection, the collection through which I am currently hacking, there are 10 foot long illustrated choreographic scores, hand-drawn and detailing intricate movements for each dance. There are plastic banners from German arts festivals and negatives documenting her work being performed simultaneously in 10 different cities around the globe.  The current finding aid for Halprin is an inch and a half thick, and growing with each shipment of new materials from the artist herself. I applied for the fellowship because I wanted a crack at processing multi-media collections with difficult-to-classify items. It would appear I got my wish and then some. But I digress.

I bring up the framed bra not only for entertainment value (seriously though, how great is that?), but also to talk about how special collections decide what to keep and what goes.

I got to sit in on the museum’s latest staff meeting, where the primary topic of discussion was the approval of the rewritten and revised mission statement for the institution. I feel like this is a process that’s often overlooked or rushed-through to get to the “fun stuff,” acquisition of new collections, marketing, etc. But listening to the discussion and later reading the mission statement and core values document, it struck me how important having a clearly described mission is for a collecting institution.

The Museum of Performance & Design’s current mission statement is as follows:

“We are an integrated library and museum dedicated to preserving and
promoting all aspects of the performing arts in the Bay Area through
archival, collecting and interpretive practices that are locally connected
and broadly relevant. By offering dynamic opportunities for exploration,
discovery, and learning we aspire to foster engagement, participation
and innovation in the performing arts today.”

Now just what does that have to do with the aforementioned bra? Well, take into account the bra’s history. It’s from an operatic production, which gives it performing arts “street cred”, but where is the Bay Area connection? Are we using it effectively to promote broader community engagement in the arts? Should this bra be de-accessioned and returned to the Chicagoland area, where it may have more relevance? Can you believe I have structured an entire blog entry around a 104 year old piece of lingerie?

These are the kind of questions a good mission statement prompts for the institution. If the Museum of Performance & Design’s mission is to promote local performing arts engagement, then that also informs where collections are sourced. For example, Anna Halprin and her workshops may have started locally, but have expanded over decades across the country and the globe. Her collection includes films of her dances being performed not only in San Francisco, but Washington, DC and Germany as well. These connections help foster both local knowledge (props to the Bay Area for producing this choreographer) as well as discovering links to the larger arts scene.

At the end of the day, archives are preservers of public memory, which can be a pretty huge and intimidating title. The only response to a responsibility like that is to define which part of the massive amount of the whole of human history you’re going to preserve, or more pointedly to define your mission. That one statement will inform not only your collection management policy, but also your exhibits, your outreach programs, and your relationships with other libraries, archives, museums, and artistic bodies both locally and in the field at large. Mission statements are the beating heart of any cultural institution, archives included. In a time when more and more corners are being cut in the name of funding or time management, I’m thrilled to be working with an institution that understands the importance of defining a clear and comprehensive mission.

Reading that back makes it sound like I’ve got a bit of a crush on the Museum of Performance & Design. Well, that’s to be expected. I have seen its underwear, after all.

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Step Afrika!, or So How Do You Feel About Fire Drills?

First off, watch this video and tell me this isn’t the coolest thing you’ve seen. Trick question! You can’t! Step Afrika!, ladies and gentlemen, the premier authority on the art of stepping. Amazing people doing amazing stuff.

Orientation week is swiftly drawing to a close, which is mind-boggling to me. Me and the “fellow fellows” (ba-dumm-ching!) have been going full-tilt from morning until evening, discussing dance history and archival technique long into the night. This evening, for an example, a couple of the lovely ladies and I spent some quality time writing up a collection assessment for Step Afrika! and thinking about the future.

Out of this exercise, I’ve learned two things:

1) I enjoy disaster, contingency, and policy development planning way, way too much. Nobody should get the kind of enjoyment out of discussing fire evacuation routes that I do. It is profoundly disturbing and further proof that my brother got all the cool genes in the family.

2) That even after three days, this fellowship is doing wonders for making me think about short, medium, and long-term career goals.

Career development within the fellowship is framed in terms of four questions, which include:

-What will you accomplish (i.e. what goals have you set for yourself)?

-What can you do for your cohort?

These are some hardcore questions, all of which involve answers I’m only now articulating. After discussing the type of legacy materials at Step Afrika!, I think a brand-new career goal for myself is seeking out and approaching smaller institutions that may have incredibly niche materials to preserve. As an hono(u)rary Canadian (proud survivor graduate of UBC’s rigorous iSchool), I’d love to facilitate more interconnection between the US and Canadian dance communities. I believe that not only the art form itself, but the scholarship surrounding dance history, would take a massive leap forward if US and Canadian dance academics were willing to work together on preserving North American dance tradition.

I tend to prefer social and cultural dance over theatrical, so making sure records like the ones at Step Afrika! are not only preserved, but accessible for future generations is a mission close to my heart. I’d love to be in a position to work at non-profit rates (i.e. my fee would involve maybe supplying me with coffee?) if only to make sure these treasures don’t languish in obscurity. However, a girl’s gotta eat, and what with the Current Political/Economic Situation, finding a full-time, permanent position within an arts-based institution seems like a long-shot.

In terms of my cohort benefitting from me, I’m already trying to set up some Facebook friendships between like-minded librarians, archivists, and museum workers with my fellow dancebrarians, because in the end, I firmly believe we’ll be the ones to create our own opportunities for each other and with each other. Who knows? I’ll be able to say I knew the next leading dance scholar or archival theorist way back in the Step Afrika! days.

[Edited: 11 June, 2012 for grammar and spelling]

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Dancebrarians, or an Introduction to Dance Archives

And just what, I hear you ask, o peoples of the Internet, is a dancebrarian?

Think for a moment about dancing. Not just the kind you do alone in your kitchen when Beyonce comes up on shuffle, but the entire range of dance. Ballet, modern, tap, folk dance, social dance, ballroom, latin, theatrical, sacred, poltical, and the list goes on. Now think about the types of archival materials related to dance. Not only papers and photographs like standard fonds, but also video in everything from film to tape to digital formats. Now throw in souvenir programs, ticket stubs, marketing posters, choreographic notes, musical scores, correspondence from dancers/directors, and items that don’t fit neatly into any category at all. Wrangling these collections, many of which have been sorely neglected for various reasons, takes a certain amount of patience, skill, and sheer ridiculous presumption. Yes, we can organize these collections! Yes, we can create intensive, context-rich inventories and finding aids! Yes, we can! I promise!

This is the introduction post for a newly-graduated librarian just nuts enough to take on the challenge.

Thanks to a fantastic opportunity from the Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC), I’ll be spending the next three months bouncing around the US working with performing arts collections at museums and dance companies generous enough to open their doors to an archivist invested in preserving the legacy of dance history and culture.

[Edited: 11 June, 2012 for grammar]

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