Newberry Library exterior

A recent message from current SAA President Mark Greene promising that SAA Council will strive to become better communicators going forward, reminded me of my own unfulfilled promise to post about my experiences at the annual conference just past. So before the memories fade completely, here is the first in what should be a series of occasional posts on some of the performing arts archives-related events that went on at the 2007 Annual Society of American Archivists meeting in Chicago. I invite anyone who wishes to report on any meetings, tours, programs, or other activities they think may be of interest to contact me via this blog.

As Tuesday, August 28th was a very hot and muggy day in Chicago, it was a relief just to get inside to escape from the heat and humidity for a few hours to take a tour of the Newberry Library. I snapped the not-so-great picture of the front of the building shortly before entering the library — one of the few occasions on this trip that I remembered I was toting a camera while at an “official” SAA event. Unfortunately, I forgot I had my camera with me a few minutes later when I left my bag in one of the lockers (relax, it was still there when I went to retrieve it after the tour), so I do not have any pictures of the interior to share. The tour was led by Martha Briggs and Alison Hinderliter and focused on the Newberry’s extensive manuscript and archival holdings (mainly those materials that form a part of the vast Modern Manuscripts Collection).

We started off with the special collections reading room and then were taken to the work area for an ongoing grant-funded project to process the Newberry’s Journalism collections. While inspecting the stacks, we were shown some of the literary collections that make up the Midwest Manuscripts Collections (not surprisingly the papers of screenwriter, Ben Hecht, is reportedly one of the most heavily-used collections). Giselle Simon also treated us to an intimate look into the Newberry’s impressive conservation department, where much activity was taking place in preparation for several upcoming exhibitions.

Undoubtedly the part of the tour that will be of special interest to performing arts archivists was the chance to see some the Newberry’s wonderful dance collections. Apparently dance was an original part of the Newberry’s institutional collecting mandate, but this policy had been abandoned by the mid-twentieth century. Interest in collecting dance materials was sparked again by the late 1970s, when the pioneering dance critic, Ann Barzel, began donating portions of her large collection to the library. Unique among these materials are silent 16mm films shot by Barzel, which document a variety of individual performers and dance companies (much of the performance footage used in the 2005 documentary Ballet Russes was from such films made by Barzel). A recent collaborative project with the Chicago Public Library has helped to preserve these valuable films and to create access copies in digital format.

Alison, who had processed Barzel’s personal papers, brought out a selection of items from the collection, including one of Anna Pavlova’s pointe shoes, which had been given to Ruth Page in 1917. Also among the highlights was a 1947 letter from Gene Kelly requesting Barzel to send him all of her films for him to study out in Hollywood. Alison also shared a sampling of some of the many dance-related artifacts, such as matchbooks and fans, which had been collected by Barzel over the course of her long and fruitful life.

Many thanks to our helpful hosts for organizing such an interesting tour and much appreciation certainly is owed to the Newberry Library and its hardworking staff for helping to preserve and provide access to these and other cherished pieces of American dance history.