Brittany Austin: A Grand Pas to Success
“Two of my major motivations for going back to school for my MLIS were to build communities and to share information and resources within these communities. My overall academic goals were to take classes that gave me new experiences that I could not learn on the job at my current position in a college library.”
iSchool Alumna (MLIS, 2014)
San José State University School of Information alumna Brittany Austin danced her way to her LIS dream job, a project archivist for Jacob’s Pillow.
Brittany Austin was working in the library of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in San Francisco, California, when she decided she wanted to pursue the MLIS degree. With an undergraduate degree in fashion merchandising and lifelong love of dance, through an iSchool fellowship opportunity Austin was introduced to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where she soon landed her dream job as an archivist.
“I had no idea that I would ever go back to school to become a librarian,” Austin says. “I just fell in love with my work at FIDM. I knew that I wanted to continue working in libraries or other similar spaces, so I needed my MLIS.”
Archives in Motion
At the iSchool, Austin split her coursework between instruction and emerging technologies. “My overall academic goals were to take classes that gave me new experiences that I could not learn on the job at my current position in a college library,” she explains. She also made it a priority to join student organizations to be able to build a network of LIS students and professionals.
During a Special Libraries Association (SLA) event, Austin, a lifelong dancer (competitively in middle school, and currently through classes and workshops) talked to an iSchool alumna, also a dancer, who recommended that she check out an archives fellowship offered by the Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC), which collects materials that document the history of dance and places fellows with local dance organizations.
“After doing some research on the organization and the fellowship, I knew I had to be a part of the program,” she says. Austin signed up for classes related to digital collections and preservation to increase her chances of being selected. “I’m so glad I did because I learned some invaluable skills!” she says.
To her delight, Austin, pictured below leaping in the archives, was selected as a 2014 DHC fellow and paired with her host site, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Jacob’s Pillow, located in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, dates back to 1790 as a dance school and America’s longest-running dance festival. Its rich history and continuing traditions make it a perfect place for an information scientist—and especially someone like Austin, with a background in dance—to thrive.
“I also was able to experience the [Jacob’s Pillow] festival for about six weeks,” she says. “I attended dance classes and performances, met students, alumni and artists, and viewed lectures and dance discussions with scholars and choreographers.”
Austin notes that there are attributes to dance that make the archival process a unique challenge. “Dance is most often performed live,” she explains. “It can be site specific, passed along orally or through body movement. These reasons, along with others, make dance difficult to view outside the original performance environment, and make it tricky to document and share in a library or archives space.
“I really respect what Jacob’s Pillow has done and continues to do for the dance field. We welcome everyone from the dance scholar to the dance newbie. The Pillow is really focused on audience engagement and education, as well as presenting an amazing festival.”
As another part of her fellowship, Austin worked worked with Philadelphia Dance Projects assisting with an artist-driven archival project led by director Terry Fox, creating digital collections using open-source software Omeka and Collective Access. “I created an inventory of the collection, cataloged materials, communicated with artists, and met with a design team to discuss how to make content available online,” Austin says.
The entire fellowship was a dream come true for her, and opened doors professionally as well.
The Archives at Jacob’s Pillow
On the heels of her fellowship, Austin got a full-time job at Jacob’s Pillow as a project archivist, a career trajectory that was far from her original iSchool pathway. Finishing work on a two-year grant, Austin primarily manages digital content and archival materials, and has plans to create online exhibits that will share the Pillow’s digital content to help tell the festival’s history.
“I did not set out on an archivist track at all,” Austin reveals. “Working in the Jacob’s Pillow archives interests me not just because I love dance, but because it’s also professionally challenging.”
The Pillow’s video team, part of the Preservation Department, which includes the archives, documents just about everything that happens during the performance season, on and off the stage. So Austin catalogs the moving image collection and processes, arranges, and describes all other materials in the collection, including correspondence, photographs, choreographic notes and other ephemera. “I coordinate digitization of printed performance programs, and work with developers and consultants at [video technology producer] whirl-i-gig to migrate archival records and digital objects to a new database.”
Austin describes the Jacob’s Pillow archival collection as “amazing,” filled with costumes dating back to the 1920s Denishawn dance era, and early film documentation of dance legends. “Plus the entire campus is an archive,” she adds. “Classes and rehearsals take place in original studios, staff, students and artists share meals together, and there are so many other reminders and rituals that connect us in present day back to the days of [Jacob’s Pillow founder] Ted Shawn.
“There’s such an energy at the Pillow because there’s so much happening—performances, talks on dance with artists and scholars, students taking classes—and everyone has such a passion for dance. The archives play a large role in audience engagement during the festival, and we host a variety of programming.”
Full Hearts Open Books
She topped of her iSchool experience by receiving the Shirley Hopkinson Award in the Organization of Information, a graduating student award.
“The iSchool was a great practice in time management, which has been a big part of my current job, especially because I do so much project management,” she says. “It was also really important for me to discover how to apply my skills in a variety of settings, not just limited to a traditional library or archive.
“Through my work at the Pillow, I help to ensure that dance is preserved, shared and treasured‚ now and for years to come. I’m constantly surrounded by dance and its history from every possible angle. It feels good to be a part of organization that supports dance and artists in so many ways—through education, preservation, and presentation.”