Since the mid-1990s, the DHC has aggregated “Finding Aids” for dance-related Special Collections online in a searchable database. Special Collections, which often contain rare or unseen materials, are essential to break-through scholarship but pose problems for discovering relevant items. The DHC Searchable Finding Aids Project helps surmount some of the challenges by providing free access to a search tool for “Finding Aids” submitted for inclusion.
Among the Special Collections included are dance-related collections at NYPL’s Dance Division (the largest dance-specific collection worldwide), major university library collections (such as UCLA, OSU, ASU and others), boutique collections (Dance Notation Bureau, Museum of Performance & Design), dance festival collections (Jacob’s Pillow and American Dance Festival), historical societies (Historical Society of Washington DC and others), and materials held by dance companies.
For links to other Special Collections in dance, consult the DHC's webpage of dance collections here.
A treasure trove of primary source materials is safeguarded in Special Collections within libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and other repositories. These materials include unique items like choreographic notes, correspondence and interviews, and never-released videotapes, as well as programs, posters, photographs, and critical reviews. Most materials in a Special Collection do not circulate outside of a library reading room, although some repositories can make “access copies” that can be shared through Interlibrary Loan or by special permission.
A first step in primary research is to locate the Special Collections that may be relevant to your topic. The Dance Heritage Coalition website will soon have lists of Special Collections related to the 100 Irreplaceable Dance Treasures. There is also a list of United States repositories known to the DHC as holding dance-related materials available on the DHC website. You also may find a Special Collection listed as a catalogue entry within various library databases.
A second step, once you have found the Special Collections relevant to your research area, is to consult “Finding Aids” that will help you identify what materials are most important for you to examine. A Special Collection of thousands of items may be referenced in a library’s database by only a single catalogue entry (such as “The Personal Papers of Ellen Smith, Choreographer”), but this entry lack details about the amount and formats of the materials and the scope and content of the collection. Archivists who organize the Special Collections create “Finding Aids” that serve as descriptive indices to the collection. Typically, a Finding Aid will provide an overview of the significance of the person or entity that is the subject or author of the materials. There may be a biography, short history, and a narrative explication of what the researcher is likely to find of interest among the materials. As Special Collections often include materials like photos or loose papers better preserved in acid-free folders or special kinds of envelopes than on library bookshelves, the Finding Aid will create a box or folder numbering system from which scholars can easily request the items they want to see.