Situating the Frankie Manning Foundation within the Context of Community Archives
Guest post by Zoë Webb
Existing literature is full of many, many articles attempting to define “community,” “archives,” and “community archives,” and exploring the reasons for–and value of–community archives. To sum up these articles, community archives exist because the community concerned feels either underrepresented or misrepresented within mainstream heritage institutions, and that they are more equipped to preserve their own history and memories than mainstream institutions. This allows communities to control their own narrative instead of entrusting it to an institution that might just, as Annie Tang of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California says, “want brownie points for tokenism” and where the material from these communities will be “subsumed amongst the thousands and thousands of other linear footage of holdings.” Because community archives are so indefinable, it is sometimes difficult to situate them within a larger library context, but they could be considered an offshoot of special libraries, in that they are entirely beholden to their parent organization, i.e., the community. Since no two community archives are formed for the same reason or operate the same way, the literature tends to speak very generally about the structure and processes of these archives. In the following sections I have attempted to break down recurring themes within the literature in order to talk generally about community archives, and then apply these themes to the Frankie Manning Foundation and its archives.
FUNDING AND STAFFING
The literature agrees that, while all libraries suffer from erratic funding, community archives are the worst off. Due to a lack of government funding, they rely heavily on community support, donations, grants, trust funds, out-of-pocket money, and other nonprofits. Even if government funding were an option, many community archives distrust the government’s reliability and believe that the support should come from within the community. The Lavender Library, Archives, and Cultural Exchange (LLACE), a successful LGBTQ archive based out of Sacramento, obtained certification from the United Way in order to be eligible to receive donations. More well-funded archives may have paid professional staff, but due to consistent lack of funding, frequently the entire archive is run by volunteers–some trained archivists, most not. According to Andrew Flinn, “in community archives there are significant overlaps between the archive’s staff, its volunteers and its community of users.” This is due to lack of funding, but also to the necessarily insular nature of community archives.
Due to the diverse nature of community archives and their holdings, there is little literature on their collection development policies. What there is mostly reiterates the reasons for the creation of the archive–to collect and document the existence of the community, in whatever form that takes–and the community’s involvement in and contributions to the archive. The archive is created to directly benefit the community, ergo “more so than in other archives, community members dictate collection development in community archives…[they] often include materials not traditionally considered archival records.” Community archives are moving towards a post-custodial model that encourages the “‘handing on’ of knowledge, as opposed to ‘handing over’ of collections.” One way in which archives are implementing this approach is by receiving loaned materials from community members, digitizing them for the archive’s collection, and returning them to the original donors. In this way, the archives are proving their trustworthiness to the community members, encouraging participation, and leaving the material where it belongs: in the hands of the community.
DESCRIPTION AND ACCESS
Diverse community archives have diverse collections, and each collection has different naming standards and different access needs. With the advent of the web, community archives are finding it easier to share their resources to wider audiences, especially impacting communities that are not place-based. Many digital platforms exist now that are highly adaptable and able to fit the distinct needs of an independent archive, inspiring inclusivity. Some are even bespoke databases, meaning that there is no disjunct between how the database is set up and the needs of the users. In keeping with a post-custodial approach, community archives are advocating for their users to take a more active role, instead of relying only on the “professionals” to curate and describe material. Archives are encouraging users to “upload content…comment, enhance and correct the content and descriptions shared by others” (43). This allows users to take ownership of the site and of their heritage, and acknowledges “that those who submit such content may be more knowledgeable or have important different understandings about what is being commented upon from those of professional or academic heritage workers.” This innovative approach brings up questions about regulation and whether the information can be used safely by researchers, but ultimately, “Replacing the sole scholar and the single professional voice with more collaborative working practices offers the potential to transform not only professional practice, but scholarship and knowledge production as well.” Just as there are customized digital platforms, there are also customized controlled vocabularies. LLACE found that the Library of Congress Subject Headings were outdated and frequently used discriminatory terms, so they adopted an expandable, user-friendly thesaurus created specifically for LGBTQ archives. Community archives are well aware of how powerful description is as a controller of representation.
The greatest challenge to community archives is that of sustainability. Many case studies explore the downfalls of various unlucky archives, the most common reasons being funding and succession issues. Community archives must maintain visibility in order to obtain funding and, even more difficult, to inspire the next generation to participate. There is concern that the younger generation of community members is showing very little interest in their archives, although Annie Tang offered an anecdote about “how a number of young people she knows got involved with the Chinese Historical Society thinking ‘this is just going to be a part-time job, … I’m not going to get much out of it, except for the little bit of a job experience and money.’ Ultimately, many of these same people have become its leaders, finding their ‘purpose by looking back at their own cultural history’.” Nevertheless, case studies express that many small grassroots archives were unable to stay open “beyond the participation of the key founding individuals”, given that the running of these endeavours depends on “immense dedication, enthusiasm and personal energy” which volunteers may not be able to sustain once the “original driving force moves away or passes on.” This tenuous state means that many successful community archives have contingency plans. LLACE, for instance, to allay donor concerns, has articles of incorporation that “provide for the donation of its collections to another queer community archives, such as the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, should LLACE be forced to close.” Because their utmost concern is for the materials to be accessible to the community, other small physical archives have done the same.
WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES AND COLLABORATION
One way in which archives maintain visibility is by continuing involvement with their community and collaborating with similar, sometimes mainstream, organizations. In alignment with the post-custodial approach, some archivists encourage community members to “actively archive and preserve their own records,” showing them ways to scan, store, and preserve because “‘everybody should be empowered to do this at home.’” Partnerships with larger institutions can easily go sour if the larger institution is interested in obtaining the community’s material, but there are also many success stories. The University of Texas Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative “partners internationally with a number of human rights organisations to preserve their records under a non-custodial model,” and Natalia M. Fernández and Cristine N. Paschild tell the story of a wildly successful collaboration between a small community archive, two larger university archives, and a TV newstation to preserve the Oregon Chinese Disinterment Documents Collection. Everybody benefited: the community archive increased its visibility, the TV newstation got a good story, and the two established institutions used the collaboration to “enhance their profile with under-represented user groups and potentially increase the scope of their collections…It is an example of how a post-custodial project unbound from traditional expectations of practice and policy can invite involvement and support from unanticipated stakeholders.”
THE FRANKIE MANNING FOUNDATION
The Frankie Manning Foundation (FMF) was founded in order to celebrate and preserve Frankie Manning’s legacy. Frankie Manning was one of the first to dance the Lindy hop in the 1930s, and is well known today for having choreographed many of the dance sequences in both vintage films and more modern ones such as Malcom X. He is also one of the most well-known people responsible for the Lindy hop resurgence in the 1980s, which has allowed the dance to spread internationally. The foundation’s mission is to “carry on the work and spirit of Frankie Manning in spreading the joy of Lindy hop, danced to big band swing music, throughout the world.” The foundation does this in many different ways, including by funding events, sponsoring individuals to travel and bring Lindy hop back to their communities, funding researchers, collecting and digitizing media for their site, and overseeing the placement of Frankie’s memorabilia into two different institutions where it will be accessible to the Lindy hop community.
FUNDING AND STAFFING
The FMF is run by a six-person board who keeps in frequent contact, despite living in different locations. Each board member has a specific job: treasurer, online presence and publicity, running the ambassador program, marketing, sponsoring a youth program at the International Lindy Hop Championships, and archival oversight. In the course of my research I was privileged to talk to both Cynthia Millman, who, among other things, oversees Frankie’s memorabilia, and Mandi Gould, who primarily maintains the website. Apart from paid lawyers and website developers, their staff is a rotating selection of volunteers with varying levels of commitment. The board members themselves are often unable to commit full time, as they each have their own jobs apart from the archive.
The FMF relies primarily on donations from individuals and events. The foundation was created when the organizers of Frankie’s 95th birthday celebration decided to collect all extra profits in order to continue Frankie’s legacy and support dancers. The largest portion of the foundation’s funding comes from special events like Frankie 95 and is tax deductible under the Houston Swing Dance Society. Most of the funding goes towards the foundation’s work, with some portion set aside for personnel required to obtain and assess Frankie’s memorabilia, website developers, digitization, and the occasional researcher.
The archives of the FMF consist of both a digital media project and an effort to preserve Frankie Manning’s memorabilia in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library. Before his death, Frankie expressed his wishes for his memorabilia to be donated to the Schomburg, but neglected to leave a will, meaning that the FMF only recently obtained the items from the estate. The Schomburg is only interested in the material predating the 1950s, so the FMF has negotiated concurrently with the Library for the Performing Arts, which has showed interest in the swing revival era material.
The digital media project contains never-before-seen footage of Frankie, clips of old movies with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, interviews with early dancers, oral histories, and new content, such as videos of events around the world. The collection policy is simple–they are interested in anything relating to Frankie. The content comes from Frankie, is produced by board members, or is contributed by the community. Many people filmed Frankie over the years. The FMF put word out to the community to donate, but digitization is a slow process, although the FMF promptly makes the content available when ready. When sharing material originating from a source other than Frankie, the board, or community members, Gould assured me the FMF is sensitive to copyright: “Whenever we share something to our site, we do due diligence to ensure permission or we share from the original source. So for example, we don’t post many of our own videos, instead we share them from the original links.”
DESCRIPTION AND ACCESS
“The Schomburg Centre…describes itself as ‘a national research library devoted to collecting, preserving and providing access to resources documenting the history and experiences of peoples of African descent throughout the world’. Its example and reputation are very influential…its size, length of existence and position within the New York Public Library system mean that the scale of its success is probably hard to emulate.” Frankie chose the Schomburg for its location in his home neighborhood of Harlem, and it will be a central location for Lindy hoppers wanting to research early Lindy hop, due to the proximity of Frankie’s gravestone and the former location of the Savoy Ballroom. The donations cannot occur immediately, however, as the people best able to caption the memorabilia are those at the FMF. Millman has agreed to caption the vintage material before donating. Laura Jeffers of the Big Apple Lindy Hoppers has taken on the effort of both housing and captioning the newer material before donation to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. Because she is working with a large number of boxes, Jeffers will only describe the material to the folder level.
The digital archives use WordPress, Google Drive, Google Analytics, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to host their site, communicate, and publicize. As they receive more submissions, they expand their site, using categories to build new menus and make content more accessible. At the moment, the site has no search function but is well organized and constantly updated.
Like so many community archives, the FMF does not feel certain about donations in the future. However, they are careful with funding, and receive it from multiple sources. The FMF has a head start on other community archives since they are first and foremost a foundation, and as long as the foundation prospers, likely so will the archives. Many dancers have already benefited directly from the foundation, and therefore will be more inclined to donate money or free publicity. Visibility is a high priority for the FMF. They use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and send out an email newsletter. The website stays up to date with current events, with new blog posts uploaded frequently. For instance, with Frankie Month coming up, there have already been several prominent blog posts with suggestions on how to celebrate Frankie and share the joy of Lindy hop with people inside and outside of your community. In the case of Frankie’s memorabilia, the mainstream institutions are well equipped to care for it in the years to come.
WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES AND COLLABORATION
The FMF is constantly collaborating financially and working with communities internationally in its capacity as a foundation. In its archival capacity, they have, on approval, funded the occasional researcher. The board considered, but ultimately dismissed, the inception of a research-specific fund. The FMF, as an archive, is both new and unique within the Lindy hop community. There are books, documentaries, and websites that relate to the jazz era–for instance, a project to recreate the Savoy Ballroom in virtual reality–but nothing as comprehensive as the FMF’s archives. I believe it will become an invaluable resource for the Lindy hop community.
The Frankie Manning Foundation functions both as a foundation and as a community archive, situating it uniquely not only within the larger context of special libraries, but also within the smaller scope of community archives. Still, it may fall prey to any of the issues that plague a community archive. While the FMF is uniquely privileged among community archives, and does most things well in order to sustain its existence, Millman admitted that the board members are so focused on current projects that they have given little thought to the issues of succession. However, they are well aware that this issue will need to be considered in order for the Frankie Manning Foundation to continue to impact the Lindy hop community for years to come. When asked about the greatest challenge and greatest reward in helping to create the Frankie Manning Foundation, Millman said the answer was the same for both: the original purpose of the foundation. Planting a permanent legacy for Lindy hoppers and “continuing to put Frankie’s positive vibes and story out there” is both rewarding and challenging because for those who knew him it is “difficult to put his exact personality out there, although fortunately there are many videos and other media interviews and performances to help us get across the person who inspires us every day.” In both its capacity as a foundation and as an archive, it will have a positive impact on the Lindy hop community as long as it exists.
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