Rose Library is staffed by an amazing group of people who are knowledgeable, friendly, and passionate about archives. The “Getting to Know…” blog post series asks 5 questions so our staff can introduce themselves in their own words.
Visiting Archivist for the Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers Anicka Austin
What do you do at Rose Library?
I am a visiting archivist for the Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers. Geoffrey, who was called a Renaissance Man by many, created breathtaking costumes, choreography, and paintings. Perpetually inspired to create, he wrote everything from musical scripts to a Caribbean cookbook and went from Tony award-winning director of The Wiz to narrator of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory without missing a beat. Carmen is a prolific and legendary dancer, choreographer, and actor who continues to influence the art world, at large. She was and continues to be a master teacher and collaborator, bringing to life critically well-received performances with choreographers John Butler and Lester Horton. She was a professor at Yale and received an honorary doctorate from Julliard. Being a visiting archivist means processing the Holder and de Lavallade collection so that records from their life and work, including correspondence, rehearsal recordings, drawings, and prose, are organized in a way that supports research, access, and use. A central part of that work is creating physical and intellectual connections between the records they’ve created while maintaining the integrity of how the records were organized by Carmen, Geoffrey, and their son Leo.
What career path did you take to work in the Archives?
One of my professors at Kennesaw State University (KSU) announced after class that the American Dance Festival (ADF) in Durham, North Carolina would be a good place to complete our internship credit. I applied and impulsively chose the Archives and Preservation internship, though I was relatively clueless about archives. I spent a summer there digitizing Eiko & Koma’s vividly imagined ADF performances for the artists’ own archive. Another part of the internship was documenting evening-length works from the internationally renowned dance companies that performed weekly at ADF. Shortly after that internship, I received a B.A. in dance from KSU. Years later, while working as a choreographer in Atlanta, a friend, collaborator, and current colleague, Saira Raza, encouraged me to pursue librarianship. At that point, I only knew Saira as an artist and it was helpful to know that she could thrive in both the arts and in librarianship. I decided to head back to North Carolina to pursue an M.S. in hopes that I could also be part of the performing arts community there.
There have been so many coincidences on this library journey. Tierra Thomas and I met and worked together as graduate research assistants in Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both of us transplants from Atlanta. As a Carolina Academic Library Associate in University Archives, I worked primarily with Carolina Performing Arts’ records, exhibitions, and engagement programs. After receiving an M.S. in Library Science in May 2020, I’m back in Atlanta working in the same library with Saira and Tierra!
Why are archives important?
Archives are living documents that, among other things, help us tell stories and understand legacy and lineage. They are so powerful for collective memory that they are sometimes destroyed so that stories aren’t told, or so that they are told in the voice of the most dominate storyteller. But when people can see themselves in the history of a country, institution or practice or discover the records of something they didn’t know existed, it can be inspiring. Those discoveries can change the course of how a person or community or institution does their work.
I also like to think of the archive we store in our bodies and the stories, behaviors and knowledge that can be passed on physically and orally. For example, the performance Geoffrey created for Dance Theatre of Harlem called Dougla or that Carmen created for Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre called Sweet Bitter Love is now in the bodies of many generations of dancers. Some of that embodied knowledge can only be passed on in the rehearsal process and can’t be learned or felt by reading about it. This comes in many forms, not just dance. It applies to unspoken knowledge between healthcare workers, generational trauma and much more. Two books I find interesting on this topic are Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire and Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. Ariella Azoulay’s work demonstrates the ways in which simply defining the archive as written documents can be destructive and violent.
What advice do you have for an aspiring archivist?
Over the course of getting an M.S. and starting a first job, it’s important to have a cohort or support group. Even if you don’t get together with the group on an extremely regular basis, having peers who you can celebrate successes with and vent to helps with the journey. You can ask questions and brainstorm with people who are having the same challenges or are facing the same situations. This doesn’t have to be people in your classes if that’s not comfortable. At UNC, it was the Carolina Academic Library Associates (CALA) for me. While some of the CALAs had classes together, I most frequently saw them during our monthly workshops and other meetings. We would go to each other’s mock interviews and other programs to support each other. The CALAs were incredible and my gratitude overflows for them and our mentors Monica Figueroa and Doug Diesenhaus. In fact, aspiring archivists looking for a place to get their M.S. might also want to look into CALA, not only for the mentorship and peer support but also the financial support, as it pays full tuition with a stipend.
What interesting item have you encountered while in the archive?
There are so many interesting items in this collection! One group of materials I’ve enjoyed reading are listener letters from Geoffrey’s WOR New York radio show “The Geoffrey Holder Show”. There are a great deal of letters, some of them with an audacious amount of song requests that take up an entire page. There are just as many complaints from listeners that Geoffrey wasn’t playing their requests as there are letters of gratitude from people who found the show therapeutic after a long week and lauded his melodious voice and choice of music. Listeners were touched when he dedicated a show to Billie Holiday and appreciative when he played calypso music, which they said wasn’t given enough.