Digital Dance: A Place for Digital Learners at New York Public Library’s Dance Division

CHAU SelenaDigital Dance: A Place for Digital Learners at New York Public Library’s Dance Division

by Selena Chau


Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to work in a dance moving image archive, so I wanted to describe some of the exciting digital initiatives happening in this field. If you have ever visited special collections or archives, you know that each collection holds thrillingly unique treasures that can diversify historical perspective. Dance is inherently a kinesthetic experience. Watching dance performances is much more engaging than finding still images, dance notation, personal papers of choreographers, or scholarly writings – I can see the technique in ballet change over time, and even how the artistry of one dancer differs from decade to decade.

The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library (NYPL) is the largest and most comprehensive archive in the world devoted to the documentation of dance. Last year, NYPL embarked on a ground-breaking project to enable online access to the Dance Division’s video collection. Distance researchers and patrons are able to view select dance recordings in a streaming, online interface. This digital dance interface is in beta, but it is scheduled to fully launch in early 2014. The new features of the digital dance interface include the ability to create mash-ups with the available digital materials: users can juxtapose still and moving images together on a timeline, create their own annotations, and save their unique explorations. The NYPL’s new Digital Dance interface features naturally cater to the so called “digital natives,” individuals who have grown up with digital information technology. This new group likes to learn by doing, prefers multi-tasking, and audiovisual over textual information. Digital technologies provide new modes of exploration and learning for new library patrons.

This summer at the Jerome Robbins Archive of the Recorded Moving Image, I did not wear the white gloves or use specialized scanners, typical tools for digitizing manuscripts and images. Betacam SP, U-matic, VHS,  DVD, and born-digital recordings were common fare. As a 2013 Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC) fellow, I assisted in the rights-clearance, digitization, and online access to the Dance Division’s moving image archive objects. The work was immensely fulfilling because I knew the collections were in demand and used everyday as I walked through the film and video viewing room. Patrons are typically dance students (with Juilliard and Fordham-Ailey students in the neighborhood), dance program lecturers, and scholars. The dance critic, Alaistair MacAulay, is a regular visitor; the Merce Cunningham Dance Company archivist, David Vaughan, hosts a program of curated dance films; and I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov stop by the library, presumably to follow-up on his generous donation of materials to the Dance Division.

Digital technology provided new modes of access to Dance Division moving images, so rights-clearance had to be revisited. In most cases, archives hold the physical property – but not the rights – of their materials. This holds unique challenges for a dance moving image archive when dance performances contain many artistic credits. Artists, company representation, theaters, and unions who previously had no problem allowing access to their materials for study in the secure library screening room had to re-approve new online access to their materials. The end result of this time-consuming work is a new interface that showcases the digitized dance performances – full length and excerpts – that can be accessed on-site at the Library for the Performing Arts or remotely. Digital native or not, all users now have remote online access to select dance performance recordings, furthering the reach of NYPL’s Dance Moving Image Archive materials.

To read more about my DHC fellowship experience and view photos, please visit my summer fellowship blog! From there, you can link to the projects in which other DHC fellows were engaged over the summer. If you are interested in SLIS coursework related to digitized moving image collections, check out LIBR 220’s section on Film & Media, LIBR 259: Preservation Management, and some of the LIBR 284 Seminar in Archives and Records Management topics.



Selena is an MLIS graduate student at San José State University where she is focusing the utilization of library technology and archival principles performing and visual arts collections. She recently completed a fellowship at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts as a Dance Heritage Coalition Fellow and is a library assistant at a private university library in Orange County, CA. Selena retired from a performing career where she danced in musical theater, opera, and concert dance productions, and now enjoys swimming, cycling, and hiking as she works on her degree.