What do librarians do? Day Four – Royal Academy of Dance Librarian

The RAD has an extensive archive containing a wide range of materials. (Image c/o Pat McDonald on Flickr.)

The following post is provided by Helen Doyle, Assistant Librarian at the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). Here she explains why dancers at the RAD need a library service.

“A dance library? But why do dancers need books?”. That’s the usual response I get when I tell people about my job. I’m the Assistant Librarian at the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), one of the world’s most influential dance education and training organisations. Established in the 1920s to re-invigorate dance teaching within the UK, the RAD now has its own ballet examination syllabus which is taught worldwide. Our founders were the greatest ballet experts and dance teachers in the world at that time and, over the years, we saw through our doors many more amazing dancers covering important roles within the organisation (like presidents and vice-presidents). This means that we in the Library have to juggle multiple roles – part HE institution, part specialist collection, part archive, part museum – and I think it is this that makes us unique.

First and foremost we are a specialist research collection, providing a comprehensive dance library for scholars and researchers. Our main remit is ballet and contemporary dance, but we have resources on nearly all types of dance in some shape or form. Dance resources present a particular set of challenges, not least how they’ve changed over time. During the mid-C20th, for example, essays were published in praise of the various prima ballerinas of the day; these days dance works tend much more towards the theoretical (gender in dance, for example). Then there’s film of dance, now more prolific than ever with the advent of DVDs and YouTube. Despite the difficulties presented by copyright, this is a very valuable resource. In dance, films have an obvious advantage over books: even the specially-designed dance notation systems force a moving medium (dance) into a static one (paper).

All this requires a good knowledge of what’s out there and a creative approach to searching for it. It also requires a good eye for detail: we have a dozen copies of ‘Cinderella’ on DVD and video, but all featuring different companies, productions and dancers. Woe betide anyone who confuses two prima ballerinas!

Because we have just the one main subject of DANCE, much of what we do is specific to us. The main classification schemes are just not detailed enough for our needs:  instead we adapt a particular scheme to fully reflect the nuances of the subject. We follow our own cataloguing rules as well. This gives us total control over the organisation of the collection, but it requires a huge amount of work in terms of classifying, cataloguing and processing.

However, that’s not the whole story. Although we are primarily a research collection, our largest user group are our students. We support 10 educational programmes, all of varying lengths (from 6 weeks to 6 years) and study types, and starting at different times of the year. We have around 120 undergraduates onsite, but also hundreds of learners worldwide studying in any one of 7 languages. This produces a lot of library work! We take in all the reading lists for the modules on each programme and order books, catalogue articles and alter loan periods accordingly. We also arrange the necessary copyright licensing and clearance to allow us to digitise extracts and articles, and maintain a selection of online resources via Athens. The students need books which are not dance-specific in areas such as anatomy, education, music and research methods, and juggling this in terms of budgets and shelf-space, let alone keeping the collection relevant and focussed, is a job in itself! There’s the day-to-day issuing/returning/shelving aspect as well, of course, and we are the first port-of-call for students needing help with assignments.

We also have an extensive dance archive. There are the archives of the RAD itself – we catalogue, house and provide access to previous editions of syllabus books and AV material, as well as official reports and our in-house publications.  We have a number of ‘special collections’ from the greats of ballet, such as Fonteyn and Diaghilev, and we house a number of other dance-related archives, belonging to people from dance critics to members of the organisation. We deal with several types of material – paper of varying qualities, photographic film and negatives – covering C18th to C21st.

With such a rich archive of material relating to the dance world, it is important that we can find things easily! We’re converting spreadsheets and holdings files into databases, which are much more searchable and detailed and (we hope) will eventually be online for people to search for themselves. This will be a fabulous step forward, allowing us to finally showcase the richness and depth of the collections, but it all takes time. We’re using the opportunity to clean and rehouse the material as well.  The collection also includes a fair share of 3D objects, textiles and ephemera, everything from early C18th playbills to costumes to stained glass windows. I would tell you about the preservation and display work that goes into these, but I’ve not got the room!

So what makes my library unique? The hybrid mix of what we do – we are an independent library and archive collection for use by researchers, as well as an HE provider and key dance organisation working at a global level.

And why DO dancers need books?  Because the books (for which, read “huge range of resources”) enhance our understanding  and appreciation of the heritage of dance and its place in our culture. And there’s so much information available that it’s a full-time job keeping up with it.

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