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.