La MaMa at #AMIA18

This year was my first time at AMIA! Otherwise known as the Association for Moving Image Archivists. It’s a wonderful conference full of archivists and AV geeks of all kinds, and a great place for someone who is managing a collection of media on all sorts of nhprc-logo-lformats. Resources galore! Friendly colleagues, eager to help out! And of course, informative panels that will give you a taste of what the professionals in the field are cooking up.

I consider myself doubly lucky, since I also got to present on our National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) funded project with my predecessor Rachel Mattson, as well as my colleagues from BAVC and the WCFTR. It was actually my first time meeting Morgan, from BAVC, and Amy and Jesse, from WCFTR in person, and it was a joy. Working with all four of them on this panel was gratifying – a chance to show off all our hard work to a room full of people who will appreciate it better than anyone. My only regret was that I didn’t get a photo with my co-panelists.

Multnomah Falls

I did, however, get a photo of Multnomah Falls

In fact, we were asked to share some of our documentation. An audience member pointed out that the Memorandum of Understanding designed by Rachel and Amy at the start of the project is quite unusual, and that other institutions might benefit from having it as an example. Anyone interested can find it here! (The only info I edited out are email addresses.)

Below, you’ll find the slides from our presentation:



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If you’d like to save the slides, download it here.

I was very happy with how we approached the panel. Rather than break the presentation down into individual sections, we were able to do more of a round robin discussion with all of us addressing each step of this two year long collaboration. After all, the theme of the panel itself was collaboration! We wanted that to shine more than anything else – that the solution to the problem of deteriorating, valuable material and no digital preservation infrastructure was to collaborate with like-minded institutions. We all benefit – La MaMa preserves and makes accessible important material, WCFTR expands their collections, and BAVC tackled the challenge of a large scale digitization effort that helped them streamline their workflows. You can read and download our project narrative here, although keep in mind some aspects of the project – like the staff involved, and a couple technical details – have changed.

I was so grateful for the positive response to our presentation. It meant the world to have other archivists engage with the work we’ve done, and it was especially meaningful to have students come up after to talk. AMIA was a treat – I can’t wait for next year – and I hope the documentation here is helpful. My inbox is always open to questions and ideas!

Paid Internship in the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club seeks applicants for a paid archives internship. This is a temporary, part-time, paid position working approximately 20 hours per week (exact schedule to be determined). The internship will start in late January and last through May 2018, with the possibility of an extension through August 2018.

The intern will support a new, grant-funded project designed to expand access to a unique set of video materials from La MaMa’s collections. (For more information about this grant-funded project, please visit With supervision from the Manager of Digital and Special Projects, the intern will conduct research and use a range of descriptive standards and strategies to improve the discoverability of these materials via Wikipedia, WorldCat, and the Digital Public Library of America. The intern will also be invited to participate in other work – including education, outreach, and assessment, and virtual meetings with our partners at Bay Area Video Coalition and Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research.

$15/hour. Must be available to work weekdays.

The ideal candidate will be enrolled in a graduate program in information science, archives management, or a related area, and will have an interest in learning about community-engaged archival practice, innovative strategies in archival description and access, and theater history. The ideal candidate will also have exceptional research, writing, and communication skills, and some combination of the following:

  • Familiarity with and interest in learning about archival metadata standards and metadata harvesting;
  • Familiarity with and interest in learning about emerging practices for using Wikipedia and Wikidata to support improved discoverability of digital special collections;
  • Familiarity with and interest in moving image archival practice; and
  • Experience working in an archives or library.

To apply, please submit the following materials to rachel [at] lamama [dot] org by December 24, 2017:

  1. a cover letter containing information about your experience and interest in the position;
  2. a current resume; and
  3. the names and contact information for two professional references.

La MaMa’s Archives Receives a Major Grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission

For immediate use

The Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club receives $100,000 from the National Historic Records and Publications Commission

Grant will preserve and enhance access to a collection of videos documenting 1970s-era Off-Off Broadway theatre

(New York, NY.— September 7, 2017) – The Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club has received $100,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to support a collaborative project that will result in expanded access to a rare collection of videos that document theatrical work performed on La MaMa’s stages in the 1970s. La MaMa will work with Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) to digitize the collection of half-inch open reel videos, and will partner with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR) to store and digitally preserve these files in perpetuity. Newly created digital video materials will subsequently be made freely available to researchers, students, artists, and the interested public.

Activities for the two-year grant, “Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of 1970s-Era Experimental Theatre,” begin in September 2017.

“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to preserve and expand access to this rare and valuable collection,” said Mia Yoo, La MaMa’s Artistic Director. “We’re excited to partner with BAVC and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research on a project that will make it possible for future generations to learn about the pioneering theatrical work that found a home at La MaMa in the 1970s.”

The most complete audiovisual record of early Off-Off-Broadway experiments in existence, the collection includes 261 unique videos which document approximately 170 Off-Off-Broadway performances (1972-1978) and the work of a diversity of ground-breaking artists, including: Mary Alice, Lamar Alford, Peter Bartlett, Julie Bovasso, Ed Bullins, Tisa Chang and the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre Company, Candy Darling, Johnny Dodd, William Duffy, Hanay Geiogamah and the Native American Theatre Ensemble, Adrienne Kennedy, Wilford Leach, John Braswell, and the ETC Company, Tom Eyen, Harvey Fierstein, Mike Figgis and the People Show, Paul Foster, Grand Union, Nancy Heiken, Yutaka Higashi and the Tokyo Kid Brothers, H.M. Koutoukas, Diane Lane, Agosto Machado, Jun Maeda, Manuel Martin, Magaly Alabau and the Duo Theater, Leonard Melfi, Tom O’Horgan, Rochelle Owens, Ron Perlman, Lazaro Perez, Robert Patrick, Ozzie Rodriguez, Kikuo Saito, Andre Serban, Elizabeth Swados and the Great Jones Repertory Company, Sam Shepard, Harvey Tavel, Cecil Taylor, Mavis Taylor, the Third World Institute of Theatre Arts Studies, Winston Tong, Tad Truesdale, the original Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, Jeff Weiss, James Wigfall, Ahmad Yacoubi, Ching Yeh, Cal Yeomans, Rina Yerushalmi, Duk-Hyung Yoo, Joel Zwick and the La MaMa Plexus Company, and many others.

“This collection documents the impact of La MaMa’s open-door policy on aspiring artists caught in the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s eager to explore our brave new world,” said Ozzie Rodriguez, the Director of La MaMa’s Archives. “We expect that expanded access to this video collection will inspire similarly daring creative experiments in the years to come.”

As a whole, the collection offers a glimpse into the kinds of conversations that La MaMa has nurtured since its founding in 1961 – and a window onto the diversity of artists’ responses to pressing social issues of the 1970s. Productions documented in this collection include:

A 1972 production of “Body Indian” – one of several plays written by Hanay Geigogamah (a member of the Kiowah-Delaware nation of Oklahoma) and performed at La MaMa by the Native American Theatre Ensemble in the aftermath of confrontations between the American Indian Movement and the US government.

A 1976 production of “Godsong”– a gospel-rock song and dance revival of James Weldon Johnson’s Harlem Renaissance-era masterpiece “God’s Trombones.”

A 1974 production of “Ghosts and Goddesses” – a Chinese-American reworking of folktales written by Tisa Chang and performed by the pioneering ensemble that later evolved into the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre company.

A 1974 production of “Standard Safety”– a satire written and directed by the inimitable Julie Bovasso, about office work, bureaucracy, gender relations, and corporate culture in 1970s America.

A 1976 performance by Ekathrina Sobechanskaya and the original Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company – an all-male troupe, costumed as prima ballerinas, performing a high camp savage satire of classical Russian ballet.

A 1976 performance of “Who Chooses the Choices We Choose” – a play that was originally developed as part of a drama workshop by prisoners of the Taconic State Prison in upstate New York.

A landmark 1976 production of Fernando Arrabal’s “The Architect and Emperor of Assyria,” directed by Tom O’Horgan (director of HAIR on Broadway) and performed by Ron Perlman and Lazaro Perez.

As part of the grant project, staff at La MaMa and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research will enhance the public’s ability to discover these rare materials by linking collection and item descriptions from La MaMa’s digital collections website ( to Wikipedia and the Digital Public Library of America. Information about the collection will also be discoverable through WorldCat. Over the course of the project, La MaMa and its partners will also create a short web-friendly video about the project, and will host three public screenings featuring highlights from the collection (in San Francisco, CA; Madison, WI, and New York, NY).


About the project partners:

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club is dedicated to the artist and all aspects of the theatre. The organization has a worldwide reputation for producing daring performance works that defy form and transcend barriers of ethnic and cultural identity. Founded in 1961 by theatre pioneer Ellen Stewart (recipient of a 1985 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship), La MaMa has presented more than 5,000 productions by 150,000 artists from more than 70 nations. A recipient of more than 30 Obie Awards and dozens of Drama Desk, Critic’s Circle, American Theatre Wing, and Bessie Awards, La MaMa has helped launch the careers of countless artists, many of whom have made and continue to make important contributions to American and international arts milieus. Tony award-winning playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein once said that “80% of what is now considered American theater originated at La MaMa.”

La MaMa’s Archives documents the work of La MaMa and promotes inquiry into the history of Off-Off-Broadway theatre. Conserved by people immersed in the theatre, La MaMa’s collections offer an intimate perspective on major social, aesthetic and political events of the past five decades. Its collections include posters, programs, flyers, correspondence, books, scripts, photographic materials, costumes, puppets, and film and video materials. Scholars and educators look to La MaMa’s Archives as an essential resource for information about the history of the American theatre and 20th century history. Among these, critic and scholar Alisa Solomon has called La MaMa’s archival collections “crucial” for anyone who wishes to understand the history of “American theatre [or] New York City.”

Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) is a leader in the audiovisual preservation community. Established in 1994, BAVC’s preservation program has allowed museums, artists and cultural institutions around the world to re-master, transfer, and archive seminal works on video and audio tape. BAVC’s preservation program has received support from the NEA, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation. BAVC has also developed high quality preservation standards and practices, served cultural organizations nationally, and spearheaded research and development projects related to archival moving image and video preservation

Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research (WCFTR) is one of the world’s major archives of research materials relating to the entertainment industry. It maintains more than 300 collections from outstanding playwrights, television and motion picture writers, producers, actors, designers, directors, and companies. Housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Library-Archives and administered by the Communication Arts department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), the WCFTR is one of the world’s most accessible archives, and is regularly visited by researchers from around the world.  Research undertaken in its collections has revolutionized the scholarship of American cinema, theatre, and television.


Be Kind Rewind: Setting Up A Film Rewind at La MaMa

       This Spring I have been interning at the La MaMa Archives while I complete my first year in NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program. When I first met Rachel, we discussed a few potential projects for the semester. One idea involved La MaMa’s collection of 16mm film, which had been catalogued by previous intern Genevieve Havemeyer-King. Unfortunately, the films couldn’t be inspected thoroughly at that time because La MaMa didn’t have a film rewind. But the archives needs a better record of the content of the films, how the images look, and which films should be prioritized for more long-term preservation. I thought the project sounded perfect for me.

        Very early on, Rachel warned me that working in community archives comes with its own special set of challenges. Unsurprisingly, funding is at the top of that list, and with La MaMa’s limited resources, I was tasked to get a rewind set up at virtually no cost to the archive. There are many little things that go into properly inspecting film. Ideally, I would need lint-free gloves, cloths to remove dust, isopropyl alcohol for cleaning, a spring clamp to keep the reel secure on the shaft, a light box to illuminate the film, and a loupe to magnify it. Most of these are inexpensive items, which we purchased from online retailers. And I found that I could just use my iPad as a light box. But we still needed the most important film-inspection equipment: the film rewind bench. Kelly Haydon, a Preservationist at Bay Area Video Coalition, had donated a pair of rewinds to La MaMa Archives last year. Rachel and I planned to make our own bench by screwing these rewinds into a wood plank, then clamping it to a table. But when I got a look at the set, it was clear they weren’t ready – they were missing handles and shafts (Shafts are the rods that the film reel slides onto for viewing).


The donated pair of rewinds

        So I began my search for the missing parts. The rewinds we had were produced by the Hollywood Film Company, which is still in business, but multiple requests for a quote on spare parts were never returned. I spent a lot of time browsing eBay, but when you have no money, sometimes the best option is to ask your friends for help. I don’t yet know that many people in the archiving community, but an email sent out to the AMIA Listserv garnered several kind responses. One man actually sent us a pair of shafts free of cost (Thanks Danny Kuchuck!). I am quickly learning the benefit of having a community of archivists to turn to.

        As I worked on this project, I also spent time on other tasks in the archives, but after several weeks, I still hadn’t had any luck acquiring the right kind of handles for the rewind. It was admittedly turning into a frustrating situation. I took a week off to go on a class trip to the Library of Congress’s Audiovisual Conservation Center, and everywhere I looked I saw perfectly good film rewinds. I must have seen fifty of them, each one taunting me, reminding me that I didn’t even have one to work with. Then I got an email from Rachel:

“OK you’ll never believe what just happened- i found a pair of handles for the rewinds. apparently Kelly DID give me handles when she gave me the rewinds. and, er, she also gave me (wait for it): SHAFTS. i found all the hardware hidden in a secret location i had forgotten about.

ACK! so this is exciting and also annoying. sorry! and hooray!?”

        I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, but I ended up laughing. I wish that I could have been there to see her reaction when she realized we had the missing parts.

        As soon as I got back to La MaMa, Rachel and I got to work. The two pieces of the rewind needed to be secured to a flat surface, roughly two feet apart, so Rachel and I went down to the basement, found four screws, and drilled the rewinds into a plank of wood. We brought it back up to our office and clamped the board to a table using a pair of C-clamps. This has become my workspace.


Our imperfect, but functioning rewind bench

After a month of ups and downs simply trying to set up a rewind, I can’t believe how quickly everything came together when I returned from my trip. I couldn’t be upset that we had the parts the whole time, because that time turned into a valuable learning experience. My first internship could have gone a variety of ways, and I feel so grateful to be in a place where my ideas and opinions are welcome, and where the work I do will actually matter. The final result of our rewind isn’t perfect, but it will do the job, and I couldn’t be happier. 

Now let’s look at some film.

– Caroline Roll


It works!

List of the items we acquired for the film rewind bench:

Rewinds – Donated ($0)

Shafts – Donated ($0)

Handles – Donated ($0)

Spring Clamp – eBay ($25)

Wood – Found at La MaMa ($0)

Clamps – Found at La MaMa ($0)

Microfiber cloth – B&H, purchased used ($3)

Lint-free gloves – B&H ($5)

Loupe, B&H ($5)

Split reel – found in La MaMa archives ($0)

iPad – used my own ($0)

Total Cost: $38

New additions to our team

I’m thrilled to be able to introduce, now, several new additions to the La MaMa Archives cataloging team. This great crew is helping us successfully complete the final quarter of our CLIR-funded Hidden Collections cataloging project.

Michael Grant joined the team as a part-time Cataloger back in September. Michael graduated from New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Masters program last spring. In addition to contributing to La MaMa’s cataloging projects, he works at NYU Libraries reformatting and preserving critically out of print VHS and audiocassette titles, ensuring their accessibility for use and study in the future. He is also a member of XFR Collective. At La MaMa, Michael has been working on a describing video materials from our Pushcart Collection.

September was also the month that Deborah Shapiro began what is becoming a yearlong archives internship here at La MaMa. Deborah is in her final year of the master’s program in Archives/Public History at New York University. As an intern at the La MaMa Archives, she is currently working on a digital exhibit about xerographic reproductions in La MaMa’s holdings. This exhibit will investigate questions about archival practices related to photocopied materials, and will offer (she hopes) a few ideas about what kind of information and evidence photocopied materials might provide to researchers.

In November, we welcomed two additional part-time Catalogers to the team. Jameson Creager  is a recent graduate of Princeton University where he studied East Asian Studies and worked at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. In addition to cataloging at La MaMa, he currently works in the archive department of the news program Democracy Now!  Amilca Palmer comes to La MaMa with 10+ years of experience in the world of documentary filmmaking. She has worked as a researcher and producer on a wide range of documentaries, including Koch (2012), African American Lives II with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2008), and Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice (2004).  At the moment, Jameson and Amilca are working to catalog materials from La MaMa’s Director’s Files.

For more about each of these (amazing) folks, see About the Team.

La MaMa at #AMIA15

I don’t travel to all that many conferences, but when I can, I try to make it to the meeting of Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). This annual event brings together a cross-section of scholars and practitioners, and offers a wide range of workshops, panel discussions, screenings, and networking events. Attending AMIA conferences has made me a far more competent and thoughtful archivist.

At this year’s conference, I had the opportunity to give a 5-minute “lightning talk” about La MaMa at a panel that was part of a daylong stream devoted to “Access, Outreach, and Use.” Below is a slightly edited version of this talk, which was entitled “Candy Darling and Copyright: Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre.”

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.26.57 PM

Hi, and thanks to the organizers of the Access, Outreach, & Use stream for all their hard work. I’m here at this pop-up/lightning talk session to very briefly discuss the approach that one community-based performing arts archive is taking to access, use, and preservation of its analog moving image materials.

Specifically, I’m here to talk about work that’s happening in the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Sometimes called the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway theatre, La MaMa was founded in 1961, in a basement in Manhattan’s East Village, and it quickly became an important site of theatrical experimentation. I don’t have time in this lightning talk to detail the long list of artists who found a creative home at La MaMa over the past five decades, but as Harvey Fierstein notes, the theater has played a critical role in shaping American theater and culture for half a century.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.28.13 PM.pngOne of the most infrequently noted of La MaMa’s many remarkable features is its archive. Occupying 5000 square feet in a building on East 4th Street, this archive holds over 30,000 unique objects–photographs, posters, flyers, masks, puppets, costumes, set pieces, and audiovisual materials. The archives has been run on a really small budget for years, but in the past decade, La MaMa has taken steps to make its collections more accessible. In 2014, we received a CLIR Hidden Collections grant, which supports the creation of a searchable catalog of materials from La MaMa’s earliest “pushcart” years (1961-1985).

Among the most vulnerable and valuable of materials in this collection is a set of ½ inch open reel video—which document approximately 170 Off-Off-Broadway theater performances staged between 1972 and 1980. They comprise the most complete audiovisual record of the early Off-Off-Broadway experiments in existence.

Productions documented in this collection include: A half a dozen experimental theater productions staged by the Native American Theatre Ensemble in the early 1970s in the aftermath of several high profile confrontations Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.29.49 PM.pngbetween the American Indian Movement and the US government;

A recording of a March 1976 performance of playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Rat’s Mass,” directed by Jazz musician Cecil Taylor (Kennedy was a key figure in the 1970s-era black arts movement. One critic called “A Rat’s Mass” “a kind of black spiritual” in which brother and sister rat “gnaw and nibble…on the standards of life that Americans use to hold themselves together”); 

Three early works of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; two performances by Grand Union dance company; an early performance by the all-male Trocadero Gloxinia Ballet; a dozen productions staged by the Playhouse of the Ridiculous;  collaborations between composer Elizabeth Swados and director Andrei Serban;

And a bilingual (English/Spanish) production of Tom Eyen’s “The White Whore and the Bit Player” featuring Warhol superstar Candy Darling in role of White Whore.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.30.33 PM.pngAmong the many challenges we face in making this collection accessible are five core issues:

1)Format obsolescence: Playback equipment for ½ inch open reel video is fragile and rare–the last machine of this kind was manufactured in the 1970s, parts are difficult to replace, and only a handful of living technicians know how to repair them. In 2011, Bay Area Video Coalition’s then-Director of Preservation, Moriah Ulinskas, wrote that she informed clients and partners “that they have 5, maybe 10 years left” to digitize their ½ inch open reel video–after which time “these recordings are gone for good.” As a result: digitization is a critical piece of our access strategies. Without digitization, no access to this material is possible.Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.32.57 PM.png

2)Copyright and Actors’ Equity regulations: Audiovisual materials documenting live performances require consideration of two sets of rights: 1)rights to the recording itself and 2)rights to the underlying performance. Additionally, if members of Actor’s Equity appear in any of these productions, the recordings are also subject to Equity code regulations.

3+ 4) Preservation infrastructure + Resources: La MaMa has limited financial and staffing resources. As a result, collaboration has been critical—with NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program, for instance; and with Bay Area Video Coalition.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.36.02 PM.png5)We also face several issues that make cataloging these materials to facilitate access challenging.

On one hand, there is no well-established controlled vocabulary to assist in the description of theater materials. The Art and Architecture Thesaurus, which is may be the most likely, offers only very limited terms to describe theatrical performances.

Meanwhile, Library of Congress Subject Headings and other, more general controlled vocabularies, offer very limited terms for describing avant garde theatre artists, productions, and archival materials. Take, for instance, the ½ inch open reel video documenting Candy Darling and the production of “The White Whore and the Bit Player” in which she appeared. Is this queer theater? It is not about queers. More importantly, the term “queer theatre” is, in this context, anachronistic; or, at least, it wasn’t used by the people making this work. And anyhow, queer theater isn’t a Library of Congress subject heading.  And yet, to my mind, it is critically important to offer user-findable access points to help artists and scholars interested in the history of theatrical work created by LGBT people and communities locate related materials.  Similar descriptive issues arise in relationship to many of the other artists and productions documented by these videos.

OK: my five minutes are up! Read our blog, tweet at me, and tune in next year when (hopefully) more of this collection will be in the process of being digitized.

-Rachel Mattson

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Who Cares for Community-Based Video?: A Report from the 2015 CLIR Hidden Collections unConference

Its the dog days of summer here at La MaMa Archives, and we’re using them to look back at the work we did over the last nine months. A lot of what we’ve done, we’ve done quietly. Among other things, we’ve finished cataloging the (massive) Pushcart Show Files record group and our Half-inch Open Reel Video materials; nearly finished cataloging several additional record groups (including the Pushcart Photograph Files, Pushcart Tour and Troupe files, and our Film materials); presented at several conferences and symposia; helped to organize a Wikipedia edit-a-thon and two CollectiveAccess documentation edit-a-thons; served as a host site for several student projects based out of NYU’s Moving Image Archiving Program; and written a wide range of project documentation, finding aids, new workflows, and policy documents for the archive.

In reviewing and evaluating this work, we decided that it would be worth publishing, here, some of the writing that emerged from this work. Today we’d like to share the first of these writings: a short piece by Jack Brighton (Director of New Media and Innovation, Illinois Public Media) describing the unConference session that La MaMa Archives Project Manager Rachel Mattson co-led with Yvonne Ng (senior archivist at WITNESS) and Rebecca Fraimow (NDSR resident at WGBH). The session was called “Alt-Archives: Community Based Video Collections.” And, as the session’s organizers wrote in their initial proposal, it was convened in order to consider “the archival challenge posed by video held by grassroots arts and activist organizations or in personal collections”:

In the past decade, moving image archivists have made great strides in developing tools to assist in the custodianship and management of both analog and born-digital video. However, many of these tools remain unavailable outside of large cultural heritage organizations — that is, they are too expensive, too reliant on technical expertise, or too esoteric for small organizations and individuals to access. In this session, participants will discuss the alternative ways in which community-based initiatives are reaching and empowering grassroots artists and activists with video collections. What questions does this work raise? What opportunities does it provide?  How might existing tools be made more accessible? Are there ways that large institutions might adapt their practices and policies to better serve the needs of community-based video collections?

This session will be led by archivists working on a range of grassroots video archival projects. At the human rights organization WITNESS (, Yvonne Ng has developed a set of strategies, materials, and trainings designed to help human rights activists implement solid archival practices; as a member of the XFR Collective ( Rebecca Fraimow has helped develop a cost-effective, membership-based model to assist under-resourced artists in transferring legacy video to digital; and at the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club ( Rachel Mattson is piloting cost-effective tools and partnerships designed to improve the in-house video archival practices at small arts organizations.

We’re delighted to publish Brighton’s post-session reflections, below.


Who Cares for Community-Based Video?: A Report from the 2015 CLIR Hidden Collections Unconference, by Jack Brighton, Director of New Media and Innovation, Illinois Public Media, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Originally published on the CLIR-Connect list-serve.

Video has become essential to the work of small community organizations of all kinds: in education, civil and human rights, and the arts and cultural life of any community. These entities are typically passionate about their work, and dedicated to documenting and telling stories about their areas of concern.  Examples of such archives include media projects associated with the Occupy movement in New York and other cities, or a local arts agency documenting street performances.  In the wake of hurricane Katrina, filmmakers, community organizations, and academics documented the events and impacts of the unfolding disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.  Many community access cable TV stations record local music performances, and political and public events.

We know the materials in these community-based archives can be incalculably valuable as primary resources for the history and cultural heritage of the communities and subject areas they concern. In many cases they are documentary evidence of key events in the life of the community, including human rights abuses.

But many of these materials are among the most hidden of all hidden collections. The organizations producing them are typically interest-rich, but resource-poor. Maintaining a sustainable video archive within large institutions has proven challenging enough. For small community organizations, developing a sound archival practice is often difficult to even imagine.

I know this from talking with folks engaged in grassroots media work in my own community, and it was strongly echoed by the discussion that took place in this CLIR Unconference session. The question is how can we, the people who claim to have archival expertise and resources, begin to address the growing need for sustainable archival practice in these small organizations, in the absence of adequate local skills and resources?

Outreach, education, and intervention

A number of us have experience reaching out to community video archives in various ways. It’s often the case that the people involved understand that they have an archival problem – they don’t have the time or resources to catalog, properly store, digitize, migrate, and manage their media collections over time. So they need external help, sometimes just to know what they have and to prioritize dealing with it. We have some stories of success to tell about this:

–The Dance Heritage Coalition has developed templates for the creation of descriptive records for dance-related video materials. These are used by DHC-related organizations to get a better understanding of what video materials they have, before prioritizing what to digitize and preserve.

The XFR Collective in New York provides a variety of low-cost services to independent content creators for education, research, and cultural engagement. XFR Collective members have also made use of the DHC descriptive record templates in working with community organizations, an example of sharing good existing resources instead of reinventing them.

The Boston TV News Digital Library provides a number of information resources for archivists on its website, and is reaching out to other communities who have materials that could be part of their total collection of TV news video.

WITNESS provides an extensive online Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video, which includes how to “start archiving your video at the point of creation.” This is a very smart approach, since many people producing video don’t think about how to archive it until it’s too late!

WGBH managed a massive media content inventory project involving 120 public television and radio stations, providing funding and training for staff at local stations to create a complete inventory of their media collections.

Adventures in community archiving

This kind of outreach can lead to some interesting conversations. At the University of Illinois, we recently completed a campus-wide media survey to measure the size and shape of our media collections across all departments. Our work in this was informed by the excellent Media Preservation Survey conducted at Indiana University in 2008 and 2009. They warned us, and they were right: When you start asking people about their hidden media collections, sometimes they want to give them to you.

So it’s important to clarify expectations. We calmly explained that we were trying to solve only the first part of the problem: understanding what was there. As I like to say, if you don’t know what you have, you don’t really have it. This is the case with many media collections held by community and educational institutions. Media surveys, which gather general information about the nature and extent of the content, can clarify what we have and how to go about prioritizing preservation, digitization, and access. It would be helpful to share survey instruments and expertise among institutions doing this kind of work, along with guidelines on how to communicate the nature of the work to constituents along with way.

Requirements, sensitivites, and pitfalls

WITNESS provides training and support for people safely using video in their fight for human rights. A key word is “safely,” as people shooting video of human rights violations are often at considerable risk. If obtained by those perpetrating the violations, raw video may be used to identify those seeking to expose them. So WITNESS video archival practice includes very tight security and access restrictions, especially to the raw video content.

Other communities have cultural sensitivities involving access. For some Native American tribes, it’s important that access to their intellectual property and cultural heritage be restricted to members of the tribe.  Because of this cultural requirement, the IMLS and NEH supported the creation of the Mukurtu CMS, a free open source platform for indigenous communities to manage and share digital cultural heritage content.

And of course copyright remains a factor in many community media archives, as it does everywhere else.

The bottom line is if we want to “help” these communities develop a sustainable archival practice, we must take time to understand their needs and requirements as the key stakeholders of their content.

Question: How do we scale this work?

This Unconference discussion reflected a strongly shared understanding of the realities and gaps in archival practice in community organizations. We share a consensus that small, grassroots organizations have video collections that are vital as primary cultural heritage resources. The challenge is how to address the gaps. We suspect the most productive approach would be to consider the right work at the right scale.

We can easily agree: not every community organization that creates video needs to stand up its own reformatting laboratory and trusted digital repository. These are resource and skill-intensive activities that can at some level can be scaled. The question is at what scale?

Are there natural organizational linkages that can provide technology intensive archival services for community-based media-producing organizations? There may be, but it seems the answer isn’t known to those in local communities.

What else can be scaled, and what should be local to the organization and/or community?

What levels of scale are a good fit given the types of institutions currently available to provide archival services?

What kind of interventions would best address the gaps in skills and resources at the micro level, and allow local organizations to leverage the archival services that can occur at a larger scale?

Can we develop a new model for a collaborate ecology of media preservation that leverages existing resources in new ways?

Some of the participants in this discussion are already doing some of this work. It’s clear to all of us that if we combine resources and share knowledge, we can do it better. Addressing these questions in more detail, in the context of local requirements and potentially scalable services and resources, seems like our next step.

Full notes taken during the session are available here as a Google Doc.

Respectfully submitted on behalf of the session participants.

The Native American Theatre Ensemble + La MaMa

Native American Theatre Ensemble in front of La MaMa on East 4th Street, 1972.

This week, La MaMa catalogers are working with materials related to one of the troupes that found a home at La MaMa in the 1970s: the Native American Theatre Ensemble (NATE). The Ensemble was established (as the American Indian Theatre Ensemble) in 1971 by a 26-year-old, Oklahoma-born, Kiowa-Delaware man named Hanay Geiogamah. (The group changed its name in 1973.) “The project,” according to an article published in Akswesasne Notes in 1972, “got underway in January [of 1972] with Geiogamah and associates undertaking a nine-month course in theatrical discipline and techniques at the eminent center created by Ellen Stewart in New York.” (Vol. 4, No. 4)

A program for NATE's production of

A program for NATE’s production of “Foghorn” and “Coyote Tracks” at La MaMa (1973) in which the group explains their recent name change. La MaMa Archives.

The troupe worked tirelessly over the next several years to create and perform original plays “for and about Indians” in a wide range of venues across the US and elsewhere. La MaMa’s collections– which include several cubic feet of posters, programs, photographs, correspondence, clippings, scripts, organizational records, and audiovisual materials created by and about NATE– document the Ensemble’s early years in-residence at La MaMa, its creative development, its domestic and international tour schedules, and the philosophy that drove its work. One document, entitled “A Proposal for a Tour of Indian Country by The American Indian Theatre Ensemble” (1973), notes that NATE’s goals included: 1)producing and presenting plays “about Indians” and reaching, with these plays, “every one of the 850,000 Native Americans, from reservations to urban ghettoes”; 2)contributing, with this work, to “the over-all effort to achieve freedom, equality of life and true self-determination for American Indians”; and 3)combating, eliminating and replacing (“as quickly as possible”) the “negative and defeating imagery which the media employs to portray Indian people.”

A letter to NATE from Rough Rock Community High School, March 1973. The writer explains that NATE's performance there was

A letter to NATE from a Rough Rock school teacher, March 1973. The writer explains that NATE’s performance was “one of the nicest things that has ever happened at Rough Rock.” La MaMa Archives.

Both in New York City and on tour, the troupe found enthusiastic audiences– of all ages. Fifth- and sixth-graders from the Rough Rock Demonstration School in Chinle, Arizona, sent the troupe a packet of thank-you notes after a 1973 performance. The New York Times ran a succession of articles about the group’s work, and positive reviews of NATE’s performances appeared in local papers, specialty magazines, and political newsletters. After a benefit performance at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis– the proceeds of which were donated to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee— the Minneapolis Star called their work “sophisticated,” the acting “boisterous and engaging,” and the “message…unabashedly political.”

Materials documenting NATE’s work are now cataloged and will be findable through our digital collections portal, which is due to launch in Fall of 2015. There is one set of objects that we’ve cataloged but can’t, yet, offer up to researchers: a collection of 1/2 inch open reel videos documenting NATE’s performances both in New York and on the road. These videos are fragile and difficult to play back. We’re hoping to digitize them in the next phase of our Pushcart Collection project, so that we can begin to make them available to scholars and students interested in late 20th century Native American culture and politics, political theater, and the artistic communities that have been nurtured by La MaMa.