NYPL Digital Collections - Jerome Robbins Dance Division
Reviewed December 2018
Kevin Talmer Whiteneir Jr.
Project Assistant -- Black Lunch Table Project; Circulation Assistant -- Ryerson and Burnham Libraries
The New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division (JRDD) is a free-to-use database that offers a small but thoroughly represented piece of the library’s extensive collection, including a purported 44,000 books, 4,000 audio recordings, 25,000 moving image files, and a wide breadth of dance and performance ephemera. Billing itself as the “largest and most comprehensive archive in the world devoted to the documentation of dance,” the JRDD digital archive makes good on its goal to provide a service that makes almost universally available a collection that is likely as diverse as its audience of artists, dancers, choreographers, and scholars. However, the dance archive offers more than just an impressive quantity of material as it utilizes a user-intuitive database, remarkable in its succinct organizational strata.
The JRDD’s main page is smart, pared down to the most essential components -- an unobtrusive background, title of each subcollection, number of objects represented, and a small thumbnail -- in order to let the material take center stage. It forgoes a more “commonsense” alphabetic scheme for its subcategories, instead, using an organization based on the quantity of material, allowing users to get a sense of the division’s collecting and digitization focuses. Though this may not be intuitive to many, and this organization style cannot be changed in favor of an alphanumeric, chronological, or another taxonomy, the ability to search the collections using keyword filters gives the user some versatility. Further, this function allows for a more tailored experience where users can sort selected collections by “title,” “date created,” “date digitized,” or “sequence.” It is here where the database serves best: when these sub-collections are explored individually.
As it contains the largest amount of digitized material at just over 2,800 full-color slides, The Carl Van Vechten Slides collection lends itself as a strong example of where the JRDD shines as a digital archive. Including the aforementioned sorting fields each sub-collection is further organized by clickable tabs labeled “navigation,” “about,” and “filters.” The navigation tab gives users the ability to explore the collection using filters that narrow the displayed material by subject, author, or dancer. The “about” tab provides users with information pertaining to the collection that is organized by clearly articulated metadata categories in line with best practices and standards for archives and finding aids, including description, names, dates, physical location, genre, and keyword topics. The filter tab allows for organization by location, genre, or topic of interest. When used in combination, these tools present a database that lets users tailor their experience to their needs.
Additionally, each object represented in a sub-collection can be viewed as a single component, downloaded at different available qualities, and is catalogued to show its individual metadata and where the object is represented in the NYPL collection and the Digital Public Library of America catalogue. Further, the database provides easy-to-use citations in the three major style guides (APA, MLA, and Chicago) as well as a code for embedding a citation/reference in Wikipedia.
These simple aspects of the collection make it one of the best digital catalogues available. Beyond its central functions, though, the collection website also offers details on relevant events and programming across New York, and blog posts about the collection, its namesake, and other information relevant to the history and contemporary practice of dance. Its biggest drawback might be that video recordings are not accessible off-site, thus making a trip to New York necessary to view its thousands of pieces of video material. However, that pales in comparison to the extensive material it provides via this free, open-access format.