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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Calypso and the NYPL

Posted by Michael Eldridge on August 3, 2012

It started, more or less, in November of last year, with Scott Sherman’s article for The Nation, “Upheaval at the New York Public Library,” which shed light on the hitherto obscure details of the system’s Central Library Plan (CLP).  Among other things, the plan radically re-envisions the role of the main branch at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the “crown jewel” of the system and the very model of a democratic research library.  (Indeed, it’s no overstatement to call this famously be-lioned Beaux-Arts building one of the world’s premiere research libraries.)  Then New Yorker contributing writer Caleb Crain picked up the baton, appearing with Sherman on radio station WNYC and making several impassioned but measured posts at his blog Steamboats are ruining everything, where he has also assembled a comprehensive collection of web and press clippings about l’affaire NYPL.  (Among the better installments: Scott McLemee’s provocative “Stop Cultural Vandalism” at Inside Higher Ed and Charles Petersen’s “Lions in Winter” in n+1.)  In April Sherman updated his story, after which the editors of The Nation weighed in separately.

So far, most of the controversy has focused on 42nd Street.  The CLP calls for closing the nearby Science, Industry and Business library and the rundown Mid-Manhattan branch (the largest of the system’s circulating libraries) and incorporating both into the main branch.  To make room, the latter’s historic underground stacks would be demolished and their contents moved offsite, effectively turning the main branch into a hybrid research/circulating library.  As The Nation puts it: this would both “disfigure an architectural treasure” and “compromise the scholarly mission of the NYPL in numerous ways.”

All this should be cause enough for concern and debate.  But The Nation editors highlight another, lesser-noted aspect of the plan: namely, the fact that the dubious, high-profile transformation of the flagship Fifth-Avenue facility may come at the expense of other elements of the system:  “The many [other] parts of the NYPL with innards in need of repair—the overburdened and underfunded eighty-seven branch libraries—may not receive a cent under the plan.  It appears that the CLP would also starve two other research libraries: the Performing Arts Library—once an oasis and now a ‘dump,’ according to a recent New York Times essay by Edmund Morris—and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which needs an infusion of funds to sustain its historic mission in Harlem.”

Dame Lorraine Celebration

Revelers at a “Dame Lorraine” Carnival organized by bandleader Gerald Clark at the Royal Windsor Ballroom (W. 66th St., New York) on February 15, 1942. From the collection of the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

And that’s where calypso comes in.  If the CLP is implemented, the character and scholarly mission of the main branch may well be compromised in all sorts of ways (as Sherman and Crain’s reporting make clear, such compromises have in fact already begun), although access to its microfilmed trove of New York City newspapers—one of the principal documentary sources of the presence of calypso in the city over the past 80 years—is unlikely to be affected.  But the Schomburg, long the poor stepchild of the system’s research libraries, is custodian of a peerless collection devoted to the histories and cultures of the city’s Black populations, including the West Indians who made their marks on San Juan Hill and Harlem in the first half of the 20th century.  Performing Arts, meanwhile, houses hugely important research divisions in Music, Theater, Dance, and Recorded Sound, each of which contains hundreds of documents, artifacts, and ephemera related to calypso in New York, many still uncatalogued or (sadly) mislaid.

I do think it’s grossly unfair to call Performing Arts a “dump”: anyone who spent time there in the 90s, before the extensive renovations of the Lincoln Center campus that were carried out over the past decade, can’t help being impressed by the recent changes.  Back in the day, the librarians were noticeably beleaguered, the underpaid interns sullen and indifferent, the clippings files in disarray, the copy centers unusable.  I don’t know what conditions are like behind the scenes, but when I visited this summer, the upper floors were outwardly clean, bright, pleasant, spacious, well-organized and efficient.  The technology was at least turn-of-the-millennium.  The gofers seemed to enjoy their work (and to know what they were doing).  And if the librarians didn’t always know the collections as intimately as the old-timers once did, they were still every bit as devoted and professional.  But let’s be clear: there’s nothing lavish about Performing Arts, and it is, after all, a unique research facility in one of the world capitals of theater, music, and dance.  It’s baffling to imagine why its slice of the budget pie, let alone the Schomburg’s, should be diminished still further.

So no matter where you reside: calypso researchers and amateurs, use the links above to read up on the CLP, its criticisms, and its defenses.  If you’re so moved, sign the petition at Change.org.  And tell your friends and colleagues.

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