Archival Dance Research Guide
Dance archives are rich resources
filled with records documenting the history of dance and providing insight into
creative processes and cultural contexts. They can provide sources of
inspiration and raw material for artists, educators, and scholars.
What are archives? Archives are collections of mostly unpublished materials, such as
choreographic notes, personal letters and papers, video recordings, oral
histories, designs, costumes, and photographs. Archives are often housed within
larger libraries that hold books, journals, and published media.
Are you looking to delve into
archival research but not sure where to start or what to expect? Read on for
some tips about how to search for archives and get access to collections.
Preparing in advance can help you get the most out of your time in archives.
Check out a glossary of terms
used by archives!
Watch Welcome to the Dance Archives: How and Why to Do Research, a free webinar offered by Dance/USA and the Ohio State University's Lawrence & Lee Theatre Research Institute, featuring artists and archivists in conversation about creative projects that drew on archival research.
NOTE: During the Covid-19 pandemic,
many libraries and archives are not currently open for researchers to work on
site. To compensate for this, many are providing additional digitization
services and remote access.
How do I find archival material on
- Check out a list of dance archives that are Dance/USA members! The
professionals archivists at these sites can help guide your research.
- Entering “[Name] archive” or “[Name] papers” in a search engine
will often bring up results from library and archive catalogs.
use Finding Aids to describe archival collections. You can view
online finding aids through library catalogs, and they will provide an overview
of the collection and a detailed description by box or folder.
also create subject-specific Research
Guides listing the resources they
hold in different areas. You should be able to browse Research Guides on the
- Search ArchiveGrid: a consortium database representing more than
1,000 archival institutions.
- Regional or subject-specific databases like the Online Archive of California or Umbra Search for African
American History allow you
to search across multiple institutions grouped by geographic region or subject.
- OCLC WorldCat: the largest national library database mainly for books and regular
- Looking for digital archives? Many institutions have some of their
collections online in a digital library. Check out the Digital Public Library of
America and statewide
digital libraries such as Calisphere https://calisphere.org/
- Tip: look at a biography or book about your subject and see what
archives are cited in the acknowledgments or notes.
- If you want to search by subject, be aware that libraries and
archives use subject headings to tag records so that researchers can search by
subject (e.g., dance genres like tap or Butoh, subjects such as African
Americans in ballet) Many institutions use Library of Congress Subject Headings. If your searches are not bringing anything up,
try varying your search term, or use the LCSH database to find the approved
- If you are having trouble finding materials on your subject, ask
library or archives staff for help with your research.
How do I contact the
- Library/archive websites will usually have a contact link or
generic email on their website, but you should try searching the site for
"subject librarians" and/or "research guides" to find the
most appropriate person.
- Try to contact the department most closely related to the
materials you are interested in. If they can’t help you access materials, ask
if they can connect you to the department who can.
- Some archives require users to demonstrate that they have a
legitimate research project. You should NOT be required to have an affiliation
to an academic institution; you can identify yourself as an independent scholar
- Having trouble reaching an archive? Contact Dance/USA’s archiving
team, and we can try to help you connect!
How do I find out who owns the
rights to the materials?
- Know that archives do not always own copyright to the materials in
- First, check the finding aid or catalog record for basic rights
information. If it’s unclear, ask librarians/archivists at the institution.
- If you want to get permission to use or publish materials, start
by asking the archive if they know who holds the rights and if they can provide
you with contact information.
Will I have to pay to get access to
- Most archives will not charge you to come in and look at materials
they hold. There may be fees for digitizing or copying materials.
- If you want to publish materials (on a website or in a
publication) or use them in a performance you may have to pay a fee to the
rights-holder to license them, and you may need to give an attribution to the
- Libraries and archives sometimes offer research fellowships or
stipends to offset the cost of traveling to do research. Ask what’s available!
How should I prepare for my visit?
- Most archives and Special Collections can only be used onsite in a
reading room, you cannot check them out. If you cannot travel to the site, ask
whether the archive might be able to digitize the item(s) for you.
- Most research libraries and archives don’t let you enter the
spaces where materials are stored. To access archival materials, you will need
to search for items online, request them, and they will be delivered to you.
Ask staff for help if you can’t find what you want.
- Be sure to check whether you need to request materials in advance;
some materials may be offsite and cannot be requested for same-day delivery.
This information should be in the catalog record (it will say something like
“Available,” “Advance request,” or “Use on site.”) If you are unsure, email or
call the archive to ask.
- You may be required to show a government-issued ID, and/or obtain
a library card to use the collection, even if you are not checking things out.
- You may be required to check all bags, coats, etc. to enter the
reading room. If you require any special accommodations, you may want to let
them know beforehand, or when you arrive.
- Food and drink (even bottled water) are never allowed in reading
rooms, so plan to eat and hydrate beforehand.
- Common policies when viewing materials onsite
include viewing only one item at a time, handling materials carefully, and
retaining the order materials came in.
- Good notes are your friend when doing research in a reading room
in case you need to return to the material later. Make sure to note the folder
number where you found things. Bring paper and a pencil (pens may not be
allowed in reading rooms.)
- Many libraries and archives allow you to take your own digital
photos of materials for research use only, but some materials may be off-limits.
It’s safest to ask! Remember that permission to take photos does not equal
permission to publish those photos.
- If you are unfamiliar with the "rules" of an archive,
don’t hesitate to ask the staff. They are there to help you.
How do I cite my archival sources?
- However you are using archival materials, it is important to cite
- In general, for unpublished archival materials, you will want to
cite the author, a title (use a short description if there is no title on
the item), the collection it comes from, the subseries
(if any), box or folder name and number if applicable, and the repository name (i.e., the library or archive institution).
- For how to cite a specific collection or repository, check the
website of the library to see if they provide a preferred citation, or email or
speak with staff there and ask for the preferred citation format. Some
libraries have online LibGuides which provide this information.
- If you cannot find an example for the type of format you want to
refer to (for instance, a videotape of a TV show), you may adapt the example
that is closest in your preferred style guide (MLA, APA, Chicago).
- Provide as much information as possible to help other researchers
find the materials.
- Refer to the date you accessed the materials, especially for any
- MLA guide to citing archives in digital
- MLA sample of citing a video found online.
Reading Room, Jacob's Pillow, 2019. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of
Visitors to the
Dance We Must exhibition, Jacob’s Pillow Archives. Photo by Christopher Duggan,
courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow
Collections Reading Room at the Ohio State University Libraries. Photo courtesy
of the Ohio State University Libraries.
Reading Room, Jacob’s Pillow, 2018. Photo by Noor Eemaan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow