Building the Folk Dance Archive – Part Two

by Ron Houston


Archives, Part 1 presented three reasons why folk dancers avoid archives:

1. Few people understand the nature of archives.
2. Archives threaten the way some people want to dance.
3. Archives threaten the social capital of some veteran folk dancers.

As a result, we forget our dances, our teachers, and our history.

To restore our past and perhaps to extend our future, we must collect, organize, digitize, and publish our archives.

But I TRICKED you. In that article, I deliberately ignored the distinction between archives and libraries because, for that article, IT DID NOT MATTER. But for you blessed few who do preserve our history, it DOES matter, very much! So let’s clear up the distinction and look at practical aspects of collecting folk dance “stuff.”


Why do you care about categories? You care, because folk dancers give you things, and you must store these things in some order (if you ever want to find them again!). That order depends on 1) your needs, and 2) the category of the thing. So, let’s pretend that you need to look up individual dances and to find the history of IFD people and organizations. Given those needs, let’s look at types of folk dance things that people donate, and how you could organize those types.


Libraries hold MASS-PRODUCED publications such as books, journals, and sound and video recordings. Many identical copies exist, and each book, for example, resembles most other books, so libraries can use a standard system to store and find these works. Michael Herman’s Folk Dances for All will be in the same place in most Anglo-American libraries, GV1743 (Library of Congress system) or 793.31 (Dewey Decimal system).


ARCHIVES, however, hold FONDS (from the French fond = bottom, foundation) of one-of-a-kind items, for example, letters, reports, memoranda, and photos (here, Csaba Palfi, from the Folkraft archives). The creator of each fond organized it, and you CANNOT reorganize the fond without losing contextual information about the creator.

So, archivists keep the creator’s order. (After all, who knows more about the fond than the person who created it?) When speaking among themselves, archivists define a fond as the documents of one person or group, organically related to each other, systematically maintained, and usually in their “second life” because they have enduring value. So the charter, correspondence, and reports of our Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH) comprise our OWN archives. Confusingly, the SFDH “library and archives” holds the archives of OTHER creators. So our own “SFDH archives” reflects OUR activities, but the SFDH “library and archives” reflects the activities of OTHER people and organizations. Are you confused, yet? Sorry. We’ll consider examples in a minute.


Somewhere between library (mass-produced) items and archives (one-of-a-kind) items is a category that I call folk dance EPHEMERA: flyers, programs, catalogs, newsletters, and even syllabi of dance events, such as this one from the January 1949 Texas Camp. Only a few copies ever existed, and only for a special time span. For example, in 1948, Michael Herman created a catalog of phonograph records so that he could sell Victor, Columbia, Capitol, and other record labels to folk dancers. In 1951, he started his own Folk Dancer record label.

That 1948 catalog ceased to have value in selling records, but now it tells us which records were available to folk dancers in 1948 and which records Herman might have used as models for his own subsequent recordings. So, the Michael Herman catalog ended its first life but has enduring value in a SECOND LIFE. That “second life” puts the Herman catalog in the “archives” category. Note: this is an AMERICAN definition of archives. Europeans define archives much more broadly but, as Scheherazade said, that’s another story.


In the 1950s, folk dancers wore costumes. Now, half a century later, those costumes are being donated to institutions. Musical instruments, nametags, dance request boards, banners, etiquette posters, and costume dolls also appear in donations. They belong in a museum, not a library or archives, so photograph these objects if you like, but pass them along to a museum.


So you receive, say, 30 cardboard boxes of “stuff” from the friends or heirs of a folk dancer. What do you DO with it?

1. NOTHING. Assuming that the donation contains no live plants or animals, you store the boxes where they will not become infested with insects and vermin, will not be subject to extremes of temperature and moisture, and will not infest YOU with insects and vermin! Never open a donation until you have time and space to do it right.

This is a good place to stop for now, with those boxes still closed. The next installment will discuss what happens when you actually open those boxes. And as I said in the first installment, you may not create the perfect archive, and you may not have permission, but DO IT ANYWAY. (to be contined)

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