An interview with Phillip Cosgrove of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In September, I had the opportunity to chat with NYPL librarian, Phillip Cosgrove. Cosgrove is the chief librarian of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division and has served in this role for almost 7 years. 

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is located on the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts campus, next to the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. Home to performing arts and exhibition spaces, along with a large collection of dance materials. I went on a rainy day, perfect weather for exploring a library and museum collection and this was an opportunity to do both. The exhibition during my visit was a showcase entitled Border Crossings: Exile and American Modern Dance 1900-1955. The space includes a stage space for performances, which was hosting a high school class during my visit. This is a library that does a lot of outreach and events to the public of New York City, making arts and information easily accessible. 

Dance libraries are a niche area of arts librarianship with jobs few and far between. These collections may be available in academic, public or museum libraries. For folks who are interested in the profession, Cosgrove has some good insights on getting involved. Cosgrove also gave me a behind the scenes of some collection pieces and a reminder of just how cool a collection can be. 

On getting into this field, the library, and being creative

Could you describe your path to this field of librarianship?

Yeah, it’s kind of a long one. Let’s see if I can sum it up. In college, I was a music major at first and then while I was there getting my undergraduate degree, I needed to get a little extra job, like a work study. I went to Ohio State, and the two options were library and cafeteria work- so of course I went to the library. They assigned me to the business library which I wasn’t really interested in, but I learned the aspects of a library and how it worked which I had never known before, you know as a child who is going in and using the library is a little different. So we’d have one hour in circulation, one hour in closed reserved, and an hour doing shelf reading. We got to do a wide variety of tasks, and that kind of got me in the loop of what it entailed a little more. I got involved in the dance department and when I graduated, I decided to dance, and I moved to Boston first. I had a BA, a liberal arts degree, so I didn’t really have anything to get a regular job when I was dancing. Dancing paid, but not enough. So, I went to libraries for my part-time work to supplement my income. My job in Boston was working at Harvard at the Widener Library and did in-processing part time work in between my dancing. That got me started in libraries, and when I moved here because I was a dancer and had library experience, I got a job here as an indexer which is, you know, kind of like cataloging the articles within the periodicals. So that’s how I started, and then I moved up and became a photo specialist and then became full-time, and the library has a program where you can get tuition assistance, so I did that and went to library school. Out of library school, I cataloged for eleven years first before I moved into this position as the Head Librarian of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. 

How would you say your dancing background has influenced your librarianship?

Well, it was important in getting the job in the Dance Division. It significantly helps when you have a dance background, but also performing in New York City you meet a lot of dancers, you know dancers, you know the critics. So you get in contact with a lot of people who come here to use the library. A lot of historians, people who come here to write books, a lot of them are critics so they knew me. Also, first being a cataloger if something is not identified and it’s a company  you know, it’s a lot easier to identify the dancers because you know who they are.

Are many of the library patrons dancers and performers?

They are, but there is also a wide range. From dance enthusiasts who just want to come in and watch dance or look up things from dancers, choreographers, journalists, historians, a lot of people writing books come here because we have an extensive manuscript collection they would use to research. 

How do you get to be creative in this role?

Well, it’s not probably in the traditional sense of what you think is creative, as in a dancer or choreographer, but there are many outlets. When I cataloged it felt very creative because you’re deciding how the record’s created, who you’re tracing, and who you’re establishing as a dancer, So you have a say when you’re writing a summary about who you include and who you think is important enough to include. What’s important about that, is that it helps the researcher find the material, if it’s not cataloged properly of course they won’t necessarily find it so it’s important to be as detailed as possible. That felt creative in a non-performing kind of way. And there are also opportunities to do exhibits and things like that where you can help decide what’s on display and include. We also have a program with dance fellows every year, you get to help them research and find material. And in that way it feels creative and a sense of accomplishment and helping people which is what being a librarian is. 

On Exciting Collection Pieces

Do you have any favorite pieces of the collection?

They’re not the most valuable or important things we have, but these are Walkowitz watercolors of Isadora Duncan. I’ve always been partial to these, these have always been something I thought “Oh I could get these reproduced and hang in my apartment”. I’ve always been partial to these.

I’ve pulled a couple of other things. I don’t know if you know who Leon Bakst is, but this is a souvenir program of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. And as you see, here’s Bakst who did set design and costume design. I have one of his drawings. It’s interesting because it’s from an unidentified dance. It’s interesting to see something he drew.

Picasso worked on a piece called Parade with Jean Cacteau and we have some Picasso letters, which I thought to be interesting to see. (What was Picasso’s contribution to the dance?) The set design and the costumes. And here’s a drawing he did of this particular ballet, a Massini ballet.

And this is an old book from 1735 called “The Art of Dancing” by Tomlinson. One of your questions was about tangible and intangible items and I thought there are ways for you to try to get connected to the intangible things, so this is how they did minutes in London back then. And it’s with images and notation and directions and there are pages of how you stand. It’s a fascinating book, and there are descriptions of how you should stand and how it’s performed.

Yes, What is it like to work with both tangible and intangible objects?

It’s always something you think about because dance is fleeting, the performances come and go. We have a program where we document dance and oral history. We’re constantly going to record performances to get some type of tangible thing but it’s not the same as seeing it live. 

We have a collection of Bhutan videos, a project around the different temples and recording dances. Those things probably would not be seen again or remembered. We also have photographs, oral history interviews, and programs. We try to collect aspects of the performing art to flesh it out even though it’s an art form that doesn’t exist constantly.

On Getting Involved

What resources do you suggest for any aspiring performing arts librarians? 

How I came to this was a more natural progression, I didn’t really research since I was a performing artist and fit into that world easier. But there are websites and resources, like the Theatre Library Association has information on performing arts libraries. That’s how I would look at it: looking at the sites and the collections that libraries themselves have to get familiar with what kinds of things are out there. A more organic approach instead of reading something about it. And also on the Theatre Library Association page, they do have something called the Performing Arts Resources which has things like “the state of the profession”. We have the Dance Heritage Coalition, and there is also the Music Libraries Association. Dance originally started in the music division, and branched out 

What is your participation with ARCL/Arts?

I’m the convener of the dance library discussion group. I haven’t done that much with it, because of the pandemic. We were going to have a meeting at the last ALA conference in 2020 that got canceled. 

Are there a lot of participants?

There was a large core of people who signed up to be a part of it, but people go on to do other things. This year it’s just me! 

Do you think it’s worthwhile to get involved with those smaller organizations for networking?

Definitely, and I know they have their own conferences. 

And finally…

What do you see as important to the future of art librarianship?

I think libraries are constantly changing, for me it feels like being as well-rounded as possible. If you’re working in a library, continue to think about how you incorporate the public into your profession. We have free performances, concerts, theater readings, everything! So I think it can pull people into cultural things who might not necessarily see them. Maybe because they’re free, they don’t have to pay a lot of money for them like some things in New York. I think it’s important to remember all aspects of the performing arts, and to be flexible because you don’t know where libraries are going in a way. 

Getting Started in Research & Publishing

On April 27, 2023 the ACRL Arts Section Publications & Research Committee hosted a webinar, Getting Started in Research & Publishing. A panel of journal editors shared their expertise:

The session was not recorded, but here are a few takeaways based on the panelists’ discussion:

  • How did you go about publishing your first scholarly work?
    • Responding to calls for papers (CFP), something that fits with their research interests. Good to have built-in deadlines rather than just writing on the fly
    • Book chapter – Helped them understand how easy it is to lose control of your work. The publisher would not give a free official copy of the completed work, requiring authors to purchase one.
    • Co-edited a book with a colleague, and wrote a chapter within it. 
    • First peer-reviewed article: a collaboration with a professor. Writing usually about something they’ve been working on.
    • Invited by Art Documentation to turn a survey result into an article. Later asked to edit a monograph.
    • Turned a seminar paper from an MLIS course into an article. Helps to be around other colleagues who are publishing and work collaboratively. Helps to have support from your home institution.
  • Where is the best place to look for opportunities and where do you post your calls for content?
    • Discussion lists/list-servs. Look at websites of journals for your speciality area. Look for opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, make sure they know your interests to connect you with relevant opportunities.
    • Library writing blog: http://librarywriting.blogspot.com/. Invites people to submit articles after seeing conference presentations. 
    • Calls for reviews via ARLIS-L, often forwarded to others – networking is important. 
    • Talking to people at conferences/at the regional chapter level.
    • If you’re not sure if a topic is a good fit for the scope of a journal, write to the editor for feedback. Being a reviewer is also a good thing to do – helps someone else with their writing, helps you be a better writer.
    • Favorite place to find CFPs is hnet.org https://networks.h-net.org/
  • What are some options for writing opportunities beyond the traditional scholarly route–Do you have any advice on getting started?
    • Editorials (opinion pieces) for journals. CNRL News. 
    • Book reviews – look at other people’s reviews for structure, format. Note: when you write a book review you get a free copy to keep.
    • Some journals have a section for feature articles that aren’t scholarly.
    • Annotated bibliographies on a topic, less structured than a literature review.
    • Good reference tool for book reviews: https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/book-reviews/
    • Exhibition reviews/notable graphic novel reviews for ARLIS.
    • Open Educational Resources (OER) – low barrier to entry. Creating one or modifying an existing resource. Good opportunity for collaboration, may lead to grants or other opportunities. There is a big need for OER in art. 
    • C&RL March issue’s Editorial is a video panel of book reviewers and they talk about their experiences: https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/25806
  • What are some emerging topics of research that you’ve noticed? 
    • AI e.g. ChatGBT. AI as a tool and a source. Worth having conversations around bias in content, info-literacy, critical thinking. Communicating about it without alarmism. Also the issue of digital inclusion, basic intro to technology – digital native does not necessarily mean digitally literate, especially with adult learners, helping users have the confidence and skill to navigate resources.
    • Research is more data-driven than it has been in the past. Intellectual freedom and censorship.
    • Accessibility (e.g. on libguides/websites), DEI, Open Access, OER
    • Labor and work/life balance, compensation.
    • Being a reviewer is a good way to learn about current topics of discussions.
  • As an editor, what are your biggest pet peeves or things that you think potential contributors should avoid? 
    • Don’t ghost an editor by starting a discussion about a potential publication and then ceasing to respond. Also peer reviewers starting and not completing projects. If you can’t complete a project, communicate that. 
    • Please read the instructions for submissions carefully (e.g. if you need to anonymize your paper). That will expedite the process, demonstrate your professionalism, and save you time.
    • Don’t assume a topic has been done to death. You never know what others are interested in + you can discuss options with your editor.
    • Use the required citation style (e.g. APA 7th edition MEANS APA 7th edition)
    • Reminder nudges/questions to your editor are welcome during the publication process.
    • Can’t make a deadline? You may be able to delay until a later publication. 
    • If you’re reviewing a publication you don’t like, you could potentially do a negative review – work with your editor.
    • Don’t forget the point of why you’re writing, e.g. a book review is to help others decide if they should read/purchase the book, not rehash the content.
  • Is there a good way to approach someone outside your institution for collaboration?
    • Send a well-written, polite email that is clear about what you’re looking for and see what happens. Talking with people after their conference presentations is another good opportunity
  • What resources would you suggest for learning to plan out research? Making timelines, etc?
    •  I find it tempting to get caught up in resources, so I like to keep it simple with Zotero