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CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship Program for Attracting Scholars to the Profession

Proposal Title:              History of American Popular Performance to 1940


Submitted by:               Kathleen Kluegel, English Library

Mary Stuart, History and Philosophy Library




In recent years scholars across several disciplines in the humanities have identified American popular performance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a microcosm of social relations and cultural practices, ideally suited to the study of the intersection of class, race, ethnicity, religion and gender in urban America.  Historians, literary scholars, and theater specialists have begun to mine the rich source material on American popular performance to answer fundamental questions about the operation of the public sphere in American society, the construction of cultural hierarchies, the function of entertainment as a safety valve for social tensions and at the same time a primary site of social contestation.   These lines of inquiry are explored in recent works of scholarship, such as Alison Kibler’s Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville (1999), Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993), Gregory Waller’s Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896-1930 (1995), and UIUC Associate Professor of History Kathryn Oberdeck’s The Evangelist and the Impresario: Religion, Entertainment, and Cultural Politics in America, 1884-1914 (1999). 


The source base for the study of American popular performance is enormous, and the UIUC collections are very rich in both primary and secondary material to support research in this area.  Much of it crosses disciplines and is not readily identifiable by students.  Some of our holdings in vaudeville and popular theater are unusually strong, and most of this material is embrittled and could not withstand extensive use.  We have, for example, an incomplete but nonetheless substantial run of an important trade weekly, Vaudeville News, which has apparently never been microfilmed in its entirety, as well as significant holdings in the original of Dramatic Star.  We also have microfilm of many important serials serving the nascent entertainment industry, such as Variety, Photoplay, Moving Picture World, and New York Clipper. 


Our holdings of unpublished primary source material are also significant.  The Alyene Westall Prehn Theatre Program Collection (1871-1930) includes programs, clippings, and photographs, with emphasis on Chicago productions.  The Hattie F. Kaufman collection of theater programs includes some material from early Champaign-Urbana productions and also from Chicago.  The Theodore Leavitt collection of theater prints, playbills and other materials from the American theater before 1870 has just been acquired from the Theatre Department.  The University Archives maintains a collection of theater programs and playbills from numerous campus organizations beginning in 1895.  Included in the Meine collection in Folklore and Humor are published reminiscences of performing comedians.  The Library’s collection of film scripts numbers more than 40 from the late 1920s and 1930s, including several by Samson Raphaelson, and of course we also have the papers, theater records, correspondence, and other materials of Raphaelson. 


The Library has extremely rich holdings in the ancillary literature that forms the context for the interpretation of these published and unpublished primary source materials, ranging from unparalleled biographical resources to the complete secondary literature for theater arts and U.S. social history of the period.


Still other resources for the study of American popular performance can be found in the Champaign County Archives at the Urbana Free Library, which maintains files on each of the local theaters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, consisting of photographs, clippings, and other materials.


Post-Doctoral Fellow in the History of American Popular Performance


Over a two-year period, the proposed postdoctoral fellow would perform a collection assessment of this material, identifying lacunae and desiderata; conduct a needs and feasibility assessment for preservation of embrittled material in this area and explore outside funding sources; explore grant and other funding opportunities for digitization of published and unpublished primary source material (with particular focus on “non-traditional” funding sources, such as the arts and entertainment industry and commercial entities); and create an instructional module for use by history, English, theater, and cinema students (providing instruction in the discovery and interpretation of the source materials and secondary literature).  The instructional module will incorporate existing digital resources (e.g., American Periodical Series Online, North American Women’s Letters and Diaries, and the related American Memory collections, such as American Variety Stage and America at Work, America at Leisure), as well as print materials. 


By the time of completion of the project, the fellow will have provided the Library with a written collection assessment and desiderata list; a preservation needs assessment for our serial holdings relating to American popular performance; a plan for digitization of published and unpublished source material and recommendations regarding sources of outside funding for the project; and a web-based research guide to the study of American popular performance.  This listing of activities roughly follows their natural progression, except for the instructional module, which can be created at the same time the prospectus for the digital project is being elaborated.  If either a pilot preservation project or a pilot digitization project seems advisable, the fellow will coordinate this work.  Last, if all components fall into place, the fellow will seek outside funding from the most promising prospects.


The candidate will hold a Ph.D. in history, English, American studies, theater, or cinema studies.  He or she will be based in the English Library, with extensive involvement in the History and Philosophy Library and mentoring by both the English and History and Philosophy librarians, who will jointly evaluate the fellow’s progress. The fellow will also consult with the Preservation Librarian, the Associate University Librarian for Information Technology, the Associate University Librarian for Collections, the Music Librarian and Fine Arts Archivist, Rare Books and Special Collections librarians, and others as appropriate.  The fellow will work collaboratively with faculty in the teaching departments, such as Kathryn Oberdeck in History, Julia Walker in English, and Peter Davis and James Berton Harris in Theatre, on the design and delivery of instructional tools and resources.


Upon completion of the project, the fellow will have a solid grounding in several key aspects of academic library operations, as well as valuable experience in forging collaborations across departments and library units.  The project will reveal to the fellow the possibilities for pursuing a scholarly career within the institutional and professional framework of academic librarianship.  The interdisciplinary nature of the subject, combined with the integrated approach to a body of material, presents the intellectual enterprise of academic librarianship in terms that will appeal to a humanities scholar.  At the same time, the comprehensive, subject-centered methodology of the project provides an opportunity for the various entities within the Library to test a new model of collaboration and perhaps redefine or reconstitute our own work.