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Photography Permitted: Opening Up the Dance Oral History Project Transcripts

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New York City Ballet rehearsal of "Dim Lustre" with Patricia McBride and Antony Tudor, choreography by Antony Tudor. Image ID: swope_1209509

As the new Oral History Assistant, I have observed how the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts operates not only as a repository for materials, but as a member of a family of artists. This familial sense is heightened by oral history as a form. An audio capture of an individual's words, voice, and interpretation of their own life, oral history is not so distant from a capture of a person themselves, a kind of audio effigy.

In case you didn’t know, in addition to producing original interviews and creating audio recordings for use at the library, we deposit into our archives a transcript of every interview conducted as part of the Oral History Project. These are nearly all available for use on-site at the library.

We are actively working to create greater access to these astonishing documents by opening up photography restrictions, thus allowing researchers more time to study the material after leaving the library. But, opening restrictions is not always an easy task.

The Oral History Project itself is not typical of library activities; we are producing, not simply collecting, new material and therefore have a particular responsibility to the oral author. This material comes into being on the basis of trust, between the oral author, the interviewer and the producer, and without that sort of trust, the material wouldn’t exist. Therefore, in the process of making these texts more available, we strive to consider and respect an artist’s generosity with his or her own life.

Every Oral History Project participant signs a ‘release form’ or ‘donor statement’ which assigns, or doesn’t, copyright and intellectual property rights for the interview to the NYPL. These statements have been revised in their wording, restrictions, and parameters over the course of the Project’s forty years. Changes to the donor statements have occurred in part because it is difficult for a given curator to predict what sorts of formats will be available as inevitable changes in technology come our way.

For instance, when the Oral History Project began in 1974, the donor statements mentioned nothing about interviews being ‘streamed’ or available ‘online’. Now, with these digital formats available, and with the library’s intention to make our materials accessible to people with a desire to study them, we must make careful decisions.

Part of my work has been to review the permission and copyright restrictions on each of the 400 interviews and help in determining whether the transcripts are able to be opened up for photography.

We have opened interview transcripts for photography if: 1.) We have a donor statement on file, 2.) the oral author is no longer living, 3.) the oral author assigned rights to the NYPL.

This has been the case for 65 interviews, with more to come as we contact the heirs and estates of participants who did not explicitly assign rights to NYPL.

This includes, among many others, Antony Tudor’s 1985 interview.

Perhaps you might consider what you would do if interviewed for a research project, publication, or even to be part of an archival collection:

  • Would you like that your words be ‘Open’, so that they can be read by researchers on-site at the library? Or would you prefer that your oral history only be available after your death or with your written permission during your lifetime?
  • What if someone approached the library with a commercial request? Would you want that all requests go directly to you, or to the Curator of the Dance Division?
  • Would you want that the Library hold the rights to the interview after your death? Or one of your family members or heirs?

A few of my favorite Oral History Project interviews from this week include:

This interview, along with other Oral History Project interviews recorded in the 1970s, humanizes the early years of the Martha Graham Dance Company. While a commonly referenced era in dance history, it has often felt to me like a mythology.

Before listening, I knew of Ms. Warshaw only in her present position as the Executive Director of Brooklyn Arts Exchange/BAX. This is a beautiful example of the way oral history unearths the multi-directional qualities of life, particular to those in the arts.

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