The TLA Plenary at the American Society for Theatre Research conference in November was a terrific success. In collaboration with the conference themes of advocacy and urgency, we opened our call for proposals by recalling the TNT series “The Librarians,” in which a group of scholars and historians become action heroes as they safeguard some of humanity’s greatest treasures against supernatural terrorist threats. We invited speakers to consider activism and urgency as part of the task of theatre librarian and historians and to reflect on the inability of remaining indifferent. We can all agree that funding will always be insufficient and physical space may always be inadequate; we might also agree that undergraduate and graduate students should receive more education in using the resources we shepherd. What else can we agitate for? How can we become action heroes? With plenary co-chair and TLA board member Noreen C. Barnes, we invited panelists to consider the following topics in reflecting upon their own advocacy:
The panelists described their experiences in maintaining and using collections that risk misuse at best and disappearance at worst, and with their work came both triumph and frustration.
Rosemary K. J. Davis, the Samuel French Collection Processing Archivist at Amherst College, described her work in the French collection, which has been funded by a “Hidden Collections” grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. An appropriate location for the work of an action hero, a former nuclear fallout shelter houses the collection. In her bunker, Davis catalogues more than 60,000 unique items that date as early as 1794. These include the thousands upon thousands of playscripts published by French’s various concerns during his own career between the 1830s and 1890s and their subsequent incarnations. The collection also includes musical scores, programs, business records, broadsides, scrapbooks, and correspondence, including a request from Margaret Murray Washington (wife of Booker T.), who in 1917 requested ten copies of Romeo and Juliet for the Tuskegee Institute. Davis invited researchers to use the collection to explore the development of international copyright and performance rights laws, the spread of amateur theatricals, and the proliferation of publishing businesses in the nineteenth century. She also invoked the work of the American Theatre Archive Project as a means of guarding against future “hidden” collections.
Debra Griffith, the Records and Reference Archivist for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Gwyn Hervochon, who also was an archivist at OSF and is now with Boise State, described the herculean project of digitizing the Festival’s audiovisual records that date to the 1930s. Griffith and Hervochon counted more than 4,100 pieces of obsolete media, some of which, including the 1955 score to a production of Timon of Athens, had been considered “total losses.” More than 1,600 reel-to-reel audio recordings, 700 audio cassettes, and 550 VHS tapes were rescued by contracted digitizing and cataloguing firms. Even holdings on more modern digital formats, such as minidiscs from the 1990s, risked falling into oblivion. Griffith and Hervochon stressed the importance having support from the entire OSF organization; many of the rescued recordings now appear on the company’s YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/orshakes). The archivists praised Carl Ritchie, a longtime OSF company member who for a half-century worked to preserve and index the collection.
The theatre historian Thomas Postlewait, an emeritus professor from Ohio State and faculty member at the University of Washington, posed provocative questions about historians’ response to adversity in, “Shit Happens: The Fate of a Theatre Archive in the United Kingdom.” Postlewait detailed his decades-long struggle to access the archives of early twentieth-century playwright and translator William Archer. For reasons that are still not readily apparent, government and institution officials relocated the archive more than a half-dozen times since it was originally donated to the British Drama League in 1924. Along the way, Archer’s manuscripts (including the first translations of Ibsen into English) and his correspondence with Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, and J. M. Barrie, among others, suffered from poor storage, inconsistent cataloguing, and leaky ceilings. Postlewait received applause from the audience when he described spreading out damp pages to dry. In recalling his frustration with the archive’s access and condition, Postlewait admitted that he has been tempted to shrug his shoulders in resignation (“shit happens”). Still, he challenged the audience to find more productive attitudes and courses of action than anger and cynicism.
The four panelists offered enlightening perspectives on the often hidden but often valiant efforts of the men and women who toil in bunkers and beneath leaky ceilings. Following the presentations, audience members swarmed around the panelists, action heroes home from battle.
Matt DiCintio, Tufts University