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Collection of music and dance from New York immigrant groups now available for research

Archivist Jesse Hocking spent the summer as a project archivist at the American Folklife Center. Here he is in the Library’s Great Hall.

This is a guest blog post by 2018 summer project archivist Jesse Hocking, who is pursuing a master’s degree in library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I grew up in West Virginia and Georgia and spent my undergraduate years in film and ethnic studies, so in many ways the American Folklife Center felt familiar. While still in Georgia, I processed manuscript collections at the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library for two years following internships at the Peabody Awards and Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Since moving to Madison, Wisconsin, I have been working on digital preservation at the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research. Between May and August 2018, I had the privilege to work in a project position at the American Folklife Center processing the Center for Traditional Music and Dance (CTMD) Collection.

In an awards ceremony on September 26, CTMD’s co-founder Ethel Raim will be honored as the recipient of the 2018 Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship in recognition of her significant contributions to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage. The ceremony is September 26 at 5:30 p.m. in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. A free concert featuring NEA Heritage Fellows will be held on September 28 and streamed live at https://www.arts.gov/.

Since 1968 (50 years!), CTMD (originally established as the Balkan Arts Center), has been assisting New York City’s ethnic and immigrant communities in preserving the vitality of their distinctive performing arts traditions. They promote cross-cultural understanding by sharing these art forms with audiences across the city. The archival collection, comprising over 14,500 items, documents CTMD’s prodigious work through video, sound recordings, photographs, and ephemera covering the diverse programming of the Center and their partners in the ethnic arts.

A view from behind the stage looking out toward a crowd. Dancer twirling blue ribbon.

A dance performance sponsored by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.

Documentation from the 1970s focuses primarily on communities from the Balkan region of southeastern Europe. Documentation from the 1980s and 1990s expands to include Center-produced recordings of Greek, Jewish, Irish, Puerto Rican, and Bukharan Jewish Ensemble music. The Rhythms of New York concert series and associated video productions are represented in addition to rare recordings of icons in folk and traditional performing arts, including more than fifteen NEA National Heritage Fellowship recipients.

To begin processing, the 1848 physical audiovisual carriers we received were individually cataloged and prepared for cold-storage at the Library’s National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. These materials span a wide range of obsolete media carriers reflecting the rapid succession of format change over the last half-century, including U-matic, DVCam, MiniDV, open-reel magnetic tape, Betamax, DAT, and VHS. AFC staff members Marcia Segal and Jon Gold handled much of the AV inventory and documenting work prior to my arrival.

collage poster featuring historic photograph and graphic text

A poster for the second annual Mahrajan al-Fan (Arabic for “Festival of the Arts”), held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1995.

The collection also includes fourteen boxes of paper material and photograph prints. After appraising the content and their original order, I rehoused all the posters, fliers, programs, and other paper event documentation into archival folders and boxes for long-term preservation. The material is arranged and described chronologically and by event. The material also includes newsletters from the Center from 1973 to 2003, which trace the schedules and activities throughout the organization’s history.

After creating inventories of the physical materials, I dove into the digital content with help from Amanda May of the Library of Congress’s Preservation Reformatting Division. Using the Forensic Toolkit, we were able to identify 1.6 terabytes of data across three hard drives. Included are 2157 video files, 4215 audio files, and 607 graphic image files. We created bit-by-bit forensic disk images of each hard drive to serve as preservation masters of the content, protecting original file structures. Next, access copies of the files were created that can be used by staff and patrons without fear that they will be corrupted or rearranged. To determine workflows for this part of the project, I was able to collaborate with AFC Digital Assets Specialist Julia Kim.

Archival boxes

The final product: processed manuscripts and photographs from Center for Traditional Music and Dance collection! The audiovisual materials are housed at the Library’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia.

The CTMD material offers researchers a large collection of video, sound recordings, photographs, and ephemera documenting the diversity of New York’s immigrant performing arts traditions over the past fifty years. The collection offers rich primary source materials for those interested in New York cultural traditions, performance studies, immigrant history, arts administration, and much more. For those interested in learning more about NEA Heritage Fellows, the Center also holds the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk Arts Program collection, which includes materials related to former Heritage winners, as well as the Documentary Arts, Inc. National Heritage Fellows collection, along with several oral history interviews with award recipients.

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