The Post-Apocalypse Librarian

“Where do you see yourself in 15 years?” someone asks.

Cynically, I reply: “a post-apocalypse librarian.”

“A what?

So, little known fact about me: I love post-apocalypse fiction. From the incredibly bleak and extremely haunting hopelessness of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, to the hopeful and extremely fun antics of humans post-Earth in sci-fi stories like Becky Chambers’s ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’, I love reading about human ingenuity and resourcefulness in the face of the end of the world. I’m a sucker for all the tropes; crumbling famous landmarks, scary messages on walls scrawled by the long-dead, and… the post-apocalypse librarian?

While not a staple feature of most post-apocalypse/dystopian stories, the post-apocalypse librarian is one of my absolute favourite character tropes. I’m talking about the wizened old women and men holed up in bunkers with odd filing cabinets, who ‘remember the Internet’ and hoard Shakespeare plays instead of cans of food. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a specific name for this character. TVTropes, that wonderful encyclopedia of fictional plots and stereotypes, has a few entries that touch on the subject. There’s the ‘Wasteland Elder’, someone old enough to remember Earth-that-was, who occasionally enlightens the hero with stories and warnings. There’s ‘Lost Common Knowledge’ and ‘Lost Technology’, the rosy misremberance of ‘The Beforetimes’, and alien researchers who discover an Earth long-dead, which is also fun, but not quite what I’m on about.

The title of post-apocalypse librarian refers to any character whose first priority in a post-Earth-as-we-know-it situation is to try and document the world around them. People who are driven, like all of us in the field of LIS, to make some kind of sense out of chaotic information. Whether they’re recording events as they happen, preserving records of the past, or even just doing their best to find out anything about the world that once was, the post-apocalypse librarian values information above all else. I’m going to lay out these aforementioned examples of said librarians using some of my favourite books, and then talk about how I relate this to the world of LIS today and my personal experience with it.

A quick note on the terms apocalypse and post-apocalypse: many books mentioned here deal with a post-Earth narrative, rather than a post-apocalypse one. For ‘apocalypse’, read ‘end of an Earthen era’, as Megan Hunter explains below:

“Etymologically, the word apocalypse contains the meanings to uncover, to transform, and to reveal, rather than simply denoting the end of things. Its origins in Judeo-Christian religious traditions mean that the endings it originally described always contained a beginning: the destruction of the world heralded the arrival of a new—holy—era. Even in its modern usage, the term post-apocalyptic contains within it an implication that even in the worst of circumstances, some form of life continues. There is, perhaps surprisingly, an afterwards, a world for humans to inhabit, and books to be written about them.”

– Hunter, “Seeing the Hopeful Side of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.”, 2017

First of all:

  1. Why does the apocalypse need a librarian?
    (The Road, Cormac McCarthy)

the road

Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road, (London: Picador, 2009), 163.

The world of the post-apocalypse is typically one that exists without written records. Most technology, even the most basic, is rendered obsolete by a: nuclear fallout, b: deadly pathogens, c: zombies, d: all of the above. When you can’t find dog-eared children’s books in ransacked homes, the only writing you tend to see are old road signs and messages from the long dead – sometimes not even written in the kind of alphabet you’d expect.

They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. (192)

Part of The Road’s appeal, unlike other post-apocalyptic narratives, is how little we are told about the world. There are almost no named characters in the story, hardly any punctuation, and only two main characters who we follow throughout the book: a man and a boy. The man, (the boy’s father), narrates most of the time. He gives us one vague, fascinating tidbit about how the end of the world came about:

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn’t answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What’s happening?
I don’t know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I’m not.

The boy in the story is entirely a child of the post-apocalypse world. He learns (haltingly) to read through the man’s insistence, but he lacks basic knowledge of so many pre-apocalypse things, demonstrated towards his fascination with trains, the ocean, and even a can of Coca-Cola which he cannot understand how to open. He is ‘carrying the fire’, as the man says, without really knowing where the fire came from. The apocalypse needs a librarian if you don’t want your world to be like the one in The Road. There needs to be someone preserving language, culture – hope, even.

2. The apocalypse journalist
(Ghostwritten, David Mitchell)


“Uh… Is anyone listening to this? If you’re not busy setting cars ablaze or looting Tiffany’s then you’re probably wired to the television, watching the greatest drama mankind has ever staged. With Apocalypse Right Now, You Can Feel Your Eyeballs Melt As You Watch The Boom! But hey, remember, phone-in radio invented interactive. Night Train FM rolls on! Even by broadcasting we may be defying last week’s Emergency Media Advisory Act – cute name, huh? (…) Maybe the info police are too busy to kick our door down, or maybe some giant jamming signal is blanketing all frequencies, or maybe some plug has been pulled from some socket somewhere and I’m just talking to myself.

 David Mitchell, Ghostwritten, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999), 404.

The apocalypse journalist is a character in the middle of these three examples; someone determined to make some kind of recorded sense out of the chaos, but without the long term goal of building a knowledge source. The journalist records events as they happen, and this could be for a multitude of reasons; for the benefit of others, for their own comfort, or simply to make sure that there’s some kind of voice out there in the dark. The example above is from David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, an episodic novel in ten parts that follows narrative threads through several different, seemingly unrelated characters and locations. The chapter the above quote is taking from, Night Train FM, features a character called Bat Segundo, a DJ for a late-night radio station. The threat of nuclear war looms heavy one night, and the world (shown through New York) is plunged into traditional pre-apocalypse looting and chaos. Segundo continues his radio show despite airwaves censorship, and unintentionally becomes the only ‘voice of the people’ still recording events as they happen. I like this example especially, because the apocalypse journalist is not simply creating a room full of nostalgic objects, but actively using their powers of documentation to bring people together.

“Where you calling from, Jolene?”
“Lower Manhattan. Bat, could I say a message?””
“Sure you could.”
“It’s to Alfonso, I ain’t seen him for three days now. He went out to get some supplies… Alfonso, if you’re listening, you just get yourself on home, y’hear? And Bat?”
“When the next song’s playing, will you make yourself a coffee and start sobering up some?”
“… Uh-huh. I’ll do that, Jolene.”
“And I’d sure be obliged if you’d stop talking ‘bout the end of the world, Bat. It don’t help none. Other than army buttheads telling us to stay calm, you’re the only voice on the dial, and most probably you’re propping up more people than you think.”
– p. 406

(I’ve made a playlist of all the songs that appear in this chapter – find it on Spotify.) This might be one of my very favourite settings in a novel. Bat Segundo is an apocalypse journalist without even particularly trying to or wanting to be: it just feels natural to him to try and make some sense out of his world by recording everything he witnesses. It’s a kind of labour of love that’s even better represented in our next trope, the apocalypse archivist.

3. The apocalypse archivist
(The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers)


“Rosemary was impressed. Archivists were passionate people, some of whom dedicated their whole lives to the pursuit of unbiased truth. Given the wealth of information that needed sorting through, professional archivists relied heavily on volunteers to help keep public files current. Rosemary had always imagined them like guardians from some fantasy vid, defending the galaxy from inaccuracies and questionable data.”

 Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), 196-197.)

(By the way, if you read just one book from this blog post? Read this one. Trust me. And then read its sequel.)

Reference archivists in a post-Earth world have the duty of remembering Earth-that-was. The bit I particularly like from this quote is “the pursuit of unbiased truth”. In a post-Earth narrative, it’s usual for Earth and its former inhabitants to be mythologised. In TLWTASAP (henceforth referred to as Wayfarers, book 1), volunteer archivists make it their mission to make the records of their home planet as truthful and helpful as possible.

“You would not believe the amount of bogus, speciest submissions we have to deal with.”
“Examples,” Kizzy said.
Nib sighed and scratched his beard. “The best one I’ve seen in a while claimed that the Exodus Fleet could never have sustained that many people for so long, ergo, the Human race did not originate on Earth at all.”
Jenks raised his head. “So where are we from, then?”
Nib grinned. “We’re a genetweaked species the (aliens) cooked up.”
“That’s so dumb,” said Ember. “What about all the Earthen ruins and stuff? All those old cities?”
“I know, I know,” Nib said with a shrug. “But we still have to go through the process of objectively disproving the claim. That’s our job.” (196-197)

While the scenario in Wayfarers 1 is far more enjoyable and hopeful than that of The Road, (humans left Earth and can be found throughout the galaxy, making friends and flying spaceships,) the effects of an apocalypse on Earth can be keenly felt throughout the book. On the opposite end of the spectrum to reference file archivists, there are Gaiists – a kind of fundamentalist sect of humanity, who are only concerned with spreading the gospel of Earth-that-was and inticing as many (pure) humans as possible to return and help to make it habitable again.

The Gaiist turned to Rosemary and Kizzy, the edge leaving his voice, a bit of desperation creeping in. “If you should have some time to yourselves during your stay here” – in other words, away from the alien – “please come see us again. We have many more Earthen wonders to share, and even more in the habitat tanks aboard our ship.” He switched the terrarium into his left hand and reached into his satchel. “Here,” he said, handing them each an info chip. “Take these as a gift. They contain videos of some of the magical places that await you on your homeworld. Just stick them in your scrib and enjoy.”  (103)

The Gaiists are apocalypse archivists to a fault – concerned only with preserving their particular narrative, and not learning or adapting in the process. If the reference file archivists pursue unbiased truth above all things, the Gaiists do the exact opposite: their archives are rose-tinted misrememberances of an Earth that clearly fell into chaos.

4. The apocalypse librarian
(Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel)


There seemed to be a limitless number of objects in the world that had no practical use but that people wanted to preserve: cell phones with their delicate buttons, iPads, Tyler’s Nintendo console, a selection of laptops. There were a number of impractical shoes, stilettos mostly, beautiful and strange. There were three car engines in a row, cleaned and polished, a motorcycle composed mostly of gleaming chrome. Traders brought things for Clark sometimes, objects of no real value that they knew he would like: magazines and newspapers, a stamp collection, coins. There were the passports or drivers licenses or sometimes the credit cards of people who had lived at the airport and then died. Clark kept impeccable records.

 Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven, (London: Picador, 2014), 259.

Our last example comes from Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an Earth in which a swine flu pandemic decimated the population. A company of musicians and actors travel the wastelands performing concerts and Shakespeare plays to the small towns of survivors, with their motto, “because survival is insufficient.” It’s one of my absolute favourite post-apocalypse stories because it focuses on not just post-apocalypse survival, but also hope. What is the point of preserving Earth culture if you can’t still enjoy it? However, the best part of the book, for me, is the story of one character who found himself stranded at an airport the day the virus broke out. The airport citizens form a kind of village in the years that follow, and Clark, out of a desire to find both something to keep him occupied, and to preserve the memories of the airport village, creates a library.

The characters in the novel have conflicting opinions on the usefulness of the library. One character asks,

“Does it still make sense to teach kids about the way things were?” (269)

While another, more cynical character, poses this thought:

 “Artifacts from the old world,” he said. “Here’s the thing, kids, the entire world is a place where artifacts from the old world are preserved. When was the last time you saw a new car?” (146)

It’s a question that helps bring together this entire exploration of the trope – why bother? If the Earth as we know it in a post-apocalypse world is simply a silo of ancient artifacts, why bother putting a few of them in a room and calling it a library? It’s a concept I’ve struggled with when thinking about the end of the world, and also about the world I live in now. The Earth generates more information than we could possibly record, and this task gets more monumentous every minute. If the world does end in my lifetime (and frankly, it’s looking likely), do I think I’ll be able to muster up the energy to preserve what little of our previous lives that I can? Why would I bother?

In Year Fifteen people came to the museum to look at the past after their long days of work. A few of the original First-Class lounge armchairs were still here, and it was possible to sit and read the final newspapers, fifteen years old, turning brittle pages in gloves that Clark had sewn inexpertly from a hotel sheet. What happened here was something like prayer. (261 – 262)

I think that’s why.


Those of you who have made it this far may be concerned about how much time I devote to thinking about the end of the world. I say it’s practical! But on a less cynical note, researching for this blog post has made me think about why I like these kinds of stories so much. At first I thought it was a simple reaction to information anxiety. There is so much to record, and so little space – wouldn’t it be nice if we had a clean slate, and we got to start again? While I’ve written this, however, I’ve come to a different conclusion. These stories are comforting to me. My generation is possibly the most anxious in history, and for good reasons – we live our lives surrounded by uncertainty and a kind of despair. We may never be able to pay off our debts, or own a house. We’re getting married less, and having less children. We’ve grown up in the midst of rapid technological change, and even more rapid environmental decline. We’re the post-9/11 generation. Right now we live in fear of an orange idiot with access to nuclear codes. We accepted a long time ago that our world is on shaky foundations, which is why we record absolutely everything about our lives. Every blog post, every selfie, every Tweet, is also a way of saying, “we are here”. We were here.

So there’s something about these stories, and these characters, that is comforting. The idea that of course things may get worse, but there will always be a voice on the radio to get us through it. There will always be volunteers sifting through archives to make sure our story is told. And at the end of a long day, there will always be a library to sit in.



Chambers, B. (2015). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Hunter, M. (2017, November). Seeing the Hopeful Side of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction. LitHub (via Grove Atlantic). Retrieved from

McCarthy, C. (2006). The Road. London: Picador.

Mitchell, D. (1999). Ghostwritten. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

St. John Mandel, E. (2014). Station Eleven. London: Picador.





life, post-academia: a short story

“Let’s talk goals,” Claire, my therapist, says.

This is my least favourite part of the session.

“I can never think of anything,” I protest. “What did we write down last week?”

Claire consults the file of notes she has on me which I’m dying to take a peek at. “Sleep meditation?”


Claire raises an eyebrow at me. I’ve spent hours talking about boring meditation is. “Really?”

“I tried, at least.”

“Okay. Did you fix your bicycle?”

The bicycle repair shop is too far for me to walk, and I keep forgetting to ask for a lift. “Not yet.”

“Did you see the GP?”

“My cold went away on its own.”

“Did you go swimming?”

“No, I had a cold.”


(We continue like this for ten minutes or so.)

“Let’s compromise,” Claire says eventually. She has the patience of a saint. “Your goal this week is to come up with two long-term goals.”

So far, my list looks like this:

  • Join a comedy club.

This is Claire’s idea, not mine. “You have such a great sense of humour!” I can’t think of anything worse than stammering out jokes in a dingy pub surrounded by balding, middle-aged men who are staring at my chest. (“How do you know that’s what it will be like?” We live in Portsmouth. Claire calls me a snob. I wholeheartedly agree, and then feel guilty because she’s only trying to help, and I promise to do some research that I never actually do. We have the same argument about joining a choir. And amateur dramatics.)

  • Get a research fellowship at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre (Austin, Texas), where they have a huge archive of Valentine Hugo’s papers. Write a biography of Valentine Hugo.

Admittedly, as research fellowship applications will only open again in 2019, this is more of a long-long-term goal. A second list appears regardless.

Cons of moving to Texas:

  • Guns.
  • Homophobia.
  • Churches everywhere.
  • Hot.

Pros of moving to Texas:

  • Someone really needs to write this biography, and I would really like it to be me.

I keep it under long-long-term-goals, and then I get stuck for ten minutes while I obsessively refresh my email account for news on a job application and eat a coffee-shop sandwich I can’t really afford.

  • Dye my hair.

You literally just cut it, Adelaide. One mental-health-fuelled decision re: appearance a month, for the sake of your bank balance, please. Besides, that only takes two hours, and then you’d have to think of something new to tell Claire.

  • Go back to school?

It’s a comforting thought. I’m very attached to my academic life. The only three pieces of jewellery I wear semi-regularly are my Queen Mary class ring, and the graduation cap necklace I was gifted when I graduated in January.  (The third is a watch, which is mostly decorative, because it’s analogue and a weird shape and I’m not very good at telling the time in a hurry, okay?)

I think about the garbage fire that was my mental health during my master’s, and put it down on the long-long-term list with Texas. Besides, completing a PHd would probably still leave me overqualified, under-experienced, and unemployed. (But I would get to be a doctor! “Is there a doctor in the house?!” “Yes! What do you need catalogued?”)

  • Find more archives/libraries to volunteer at.

(“Pay me!” The capitalism goblin in my head screeches.) I am reminded that there is a knitting group at my local library, which could be fun, and then I sink into a deeper despair. A public library knitting group. I’m 22. Is that really the best I can do for a social life? (“Why don’t you make plans with your friends?” Claire asks. “Well, 99% of them live in London.” “Did your childhood friends all move away for university?” “Uh, sure.”)

But I do love to knit, so it goes on the list. I need a new cardigan.

  • Start learning Lithuanian again.

This is also Claire’s idea. I point out that as I ended up studying library science instead of Baltic history, I don’t actually need it any more. (“Did you like learning it?” She asks.) I did. I would like to go there again. It gets put down on the list. Maybe I could find a very patient pen-pal.

I look down at this list of things I will almost definitely not do, because I wake up at noon most days and sometimes I just about have the energy to check my email and make coffee before it starts getting dark out. Getting to the coffee shop to write a blog post is a minor miracle. (I even ordered semi-healthy food! Take that, depression!)

(I would like to point out to any potential employers that this is a result of being on a zero-hours contract and never having a routine, or a lot of things to do. I’m a dedicated, talented archivist, and very motivated when I’m in a full-time role. I love capitalism. Promise.)

  • Start updating this blog regularly. Maybe once a week?

Hey, it’s easier than learning Lithuanian.

Next blog post (and if I don’t get this out before next Thursday, someone poke me,) will be about where my professional life is right now (hah!) and what my career goals are. Also, the realities of documenting performance when you actually work in a theatre. (I do box office and stage crew now, and document suprisingly little of it.) And we’re going to talk about the Olivier noms. Til next time, loyal readers, ex-classmates, and patient therapists.

On serious scrapbooking and documenting performance in action.

Hello, readers! It’s been a while, I know. Depression got me good for a while there. More on writing a dissertation with a mental illness later, but for now I’d like to introduce you to an old friend.


(Hand for scale.) This is my theatre and ballet scrapbook. It is an enormous, heavy monstrosity, (thanks, vague Amazon item descriptions), and I love it dearly. Inside is documented every show I’ve been to since starting university in 2013, (and one from before – see the ticket stub from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 2001!)


I organise them chronologically. Each entry has a ticket stub, and most have a programme, cast sheet, or leaflet to accompany it, as well as a little label written by me to document who I was with, or important events that happened that day, or even just things I particularly liked or didn’t like about the show.  It’s helpful for me to do this, and it’s a lot of fun to look back and remember when friends got engaged, or who I took on a date to a particular show, or even to read one label which just says “walked out at the interval”. Last night I went to see Kiki’s Delivery Service at the Southwark Playhouse with my mother, and I thought it would be a fun exercise to take you through the different ways in which I personally document a performance. (This is going to be a very picture-heavy blog entry!)


Firstly, here’s all the physical stuff. (Good haul for one show!) Two tickets, one programme, a leaflet (with the same design as the programme on the front), and a piece of confetti picked up from the theatre floor. I can’t find my index cards at the moment, but the label would read something like this;

Kiki’s Delivery Service, Southwark Playhouse, August 2017. The pink confetti is from a scene where Gigi, (represented on stage as an adorable puppet cat) was playing in a delivery box.

I was very impressed with the programme itself. It was only £2 – a bigger theatre would charge £5 – £7 on the cheaper end of the scale, and actually had a wealth of information as opposed to the usual ‘one cast sheet and twenty pages of adverts’.

Inside you get everything that’s pictured here, as well as some history of the Southwark Playhouse, and actor and crew credits with headshots. I especially liked the inclusion of the character designs – it’s really nice to have documents from the creative process! I would have also liked there to be photos from the production included, but luckily some of these were hung up in the box office and I took a picture of those instead. (There are also pictures on the production website.)


And of course, we have the obligatory ‘picture of the set before the house lights go down’ photo, and a photo of me and mum taken by a friendly usher.

And that’s it, right?


kiki twitter


kiki facebook


Also, there’s a write-up in my private journal, but you’re not getting a picture of that.

And there you have it. One performance, many different ways of personally documenting it. Is this insane? Do I have way too much time on my hands? How do you organise your own theatre collections? Have I mentioned that the address for this blog has changed from accidentallyscience to adafrobinson?

PS: If you get a chance to see Kiki’s Delivery Service at the Southwark Playhouse, do go. It’s a really charming production, lots of fun, and it’s on until September 3rd.

Thresholds and Time Travel

Dear readers, today I went back in time.

Birmingham, 1839, to be exact. Admittedly, if the TARDIS showed up outside my bedroom window that’s not the first place I would have chosen, but that’s the exact time and location Mat Collishaw has recreated for a virtual reality exhibition in Somerset House.

IMG_4015 (1)

Stylish, no?

Using the latest in VR technology, Thresholds will restage one of the earliest exhibitions of photography in 1839, when British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public at King Edward’s School, Birmingham.

The experience will be a fully immersive portal to the past; walk freely throughout a digitally reconstructed room, and touch the bespoke vitrines, fixtures and mouldings; even the heat from a coal fire will be recreated. A soundscape for Thresholds includes the sound of demonstrations of the Chartist protesters who rioted in 1839 on the streets of Birmingham, and who can be glimpsed through the digital windows.

This was my first time experiencing virtual reality, and it was one of the most strange and wonderful experiences of my life. I didn’t really know what to expect when I walked through the doors to the exhibit. Participants are given a slightly mysterious computer unit to wear as a backpack, a VR headset and headphones, before being led up a ramp into the viewing space. (Fun fact: this is possibly the first time ever that being a mobility-aid user has given me an athletic edge. When you’re led up the ramp all you can see is grey, so the cane was a big help in getting around.) As soon as you enter the viewing room the simulation kicks in, and you’re in Birmingham, 1839.

(Above: the ‘backpack’, and some participants exploring the gallery. Photos taken with permission.)

It’s hard to describe the first moment you slip into another world. I think the first thing I noticed was the ceiling – the building had suddenly gotten several metres taller, and the ceiling was a gorgeous cathedral-type affair, with moths fluttering around the chandeliers and cobwebs in the corners. The second thing I noticed was the spider crawling across an oil painting hung up near the entrance, which made me shriek, and so did a mouse which scampered past my feet. The ghosts didn’t help either – other people in the room show up as these hazy white spectral figures, so you don’t bump into them – and it took me a few deep breaths to calm down and acclimate to the room. As the experience is 360 degrees and so immersive, it can get a little creepy. I started by walking around the cabinets which housed the Talbot photogenic drawings, made up mostly of (very beautiful) copies of lace and leaves, with some landscapes. Through the headphones I could hear the noise of Chartist protesters, which led me to the window, out of which you can see foggy Victorian streets complete with gas lanterns and the occasional person strolling past.

At this point a strange white box showed up in my field of vision, and then I crashed into someone. My headset had lost its connection, and I spent a rather scary few minutes walking around completely blind until someone helpfully led me back to the VR station where I was given a new headset. Back in 1839, I started exploring the walls around the cabinets, where photographic equipment was on display, and there was a real (ish!) fire roaring. (The flames were virtual, but the space heater in its place gave out real heat, and the effect was quite thrilling.) When my time was up, I emerged back in the present day blinking and more than a little shaken, but even more excited than I had been before about virtual reality and what it could do in the world.

FullSizeRender (1)

(This screen in the waiting area shows you the floor plan of the viewing space. The white figures are the real people exploring the room.)

I’ve been reading a lot about virtual reality since it was first mentioned in our “story of documents” lectures at citylis, and then I started to write about its impact on legacy collections and digital libraries for my ‘Digital Libraries’ essay. Academically I found it fascinating, but I was not prepared for the real thing. I had been writing about how virtual reality could preserve collections for future generations, which I thought was going to be the focus of Thresholds, but preserving Talbot’s collection didn’t seem to be the point. It was the experience of being in 1839 that was the main focus – the photos were interesting, but hard to physically focus on in the environment, and there were no accompanying descriptions of the artworks or artefacts. (Note for short-sighted people – keep your glasses on under the headset! I tried it both ways, assuming that because the ‘picture’ was so close to my eyes I’d be able to see it better without my glasses, but I was wrong.) This definitely isn’t a criticism – I had a really fantastic time – but it wasn’t what I’d been writing about. Could virtual reality recreate an archive or library in such a way that it could be really used by researchers? We still have to find that out, I think. Right now virtual reality is providing fantastic experiences inaccessible to the physical world, and I think that’s amazing. If you get a chance to see Mat Collishaw’s exhibit, I recommend it heartily. Just don’t try to touch the ‘fire’.

late-night notes on dance and shakespeare

This is less of an academic blog entry and more of a thought-dump of themes and feelings I’ve collected during my last week of documenting dance research.

Or; “Adelaide procrastinates on writing her essay by writing about her essay.”

Do you ever read something while you’re researching that seems to reach out through the computer screen and grab you by the throat? I was reading a 1986 review of studies in European dance history and felt personally attacked by the following quote. “Studies in dance history may be boring to read because the material presented refers to nothing in our own experience; we must invent our own examples in order to make any sense out of it at all. How interesting would studies of Shakespeare be if, at best, only fragments of plays had survived?” (Meredith Little).

“It’s not boring to read!” I yelled at my screen. “I spend my life doing this! I spent most of my childhood obsessively collecting scripts and programmes from plays and musicals that I thought I’d never get to see!” (Side note: dear 12-year-old Adelaide, you did in fact get to see “The Last Five Years”, live on stage in London in 2016. Quite why you were so obsessed with that at age 12 remains a mystery.)

That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with Meredith Little – I think she’s absolutely right about this. While researching the topic of dance documentation, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned with the whole reconstruction process. I still think it’s a fascinating, and sometimes even noble, pursuit. But I’m not sure it ever actually works. Can you ever really reconstruct a live performance? Does that even need to be your goal? Why can’t simply “inventing your own examples” be enough?

Case in point: “How interesting would studies of Shakespeare be if only fragments of plays had survived?” Well, funnily enough, I can tell you exactly how. In 2015 I put on a play called “The Life and Death of Thomas Cromwell”. I was the co-director and costume designer, as well as the person who had found and partially rewritten the script for my amateur university theatre company. I had found the script online during research into the man himself, a historical favourite of mine.

All that remains of the play, is the play. The author, who signed the script with “W.S”, has never been identified – most say it was Shakespeare, but honestly, the quality of the play suggests not – and I have yet to find anything substantial written on how it was presented, or who acted in it, or where it was staged. Or even, given the bizarre historical reinterpretations present in the narrative, (seriously, the story is a Wild Ride), why it was written. In order to put on this play we needed to invent our own example, so we took that theme and ran with it. We marketed the play on the fascinating anonymity of the playwright, (“Who is W.S?”) and rewrote the script so that the playwright themselves was the narrator. We deleted scenes and characters, and rearranged lines. We covered the entire stage in post-it notes and staged elaborate death scenes where the playwright had to literally kill off their characters. (This was a university known for its performance art, after all.)

It was a success, and we had a great time. It was quite possibly the first time anyone had put on this play since the initial run of however many nights it originally had. But it was anything but a faithful reconstruction. There simply wasn’t enough to go on to make it so.

We put the whole thing on, from pitch to performance, in about two months. It was the most stressful period of my life. But during that chaos, my overriding feeling was that we had to document everything that happened. Despite only having one night of performance, I made us a full programme; with a cast sheet, acknowledgements, and background information on the play and our mysterious playwright. I took pictures at every rehearsal and updated a Facebook group devotedly with notes and recordings. I gave myself backache standing awkwardly hunched over in the tech booth with an ancient video camera to film the whole hour of our show. (The camera was so old that it took me over a year to find a way of actually transferring the video onto a format that people could watch, but we got there in the end.) Theatre is an inherently ephemeral medium, but having physical records of this play that had been so undocumented was extremely important to me. Partly because there was a performance archivist/librarian inside me waiting to be set free, but also because I felt like we owed it to our anonymous playwright to finally make a record of their work.

Pictured: a record of our play. (One that the original playwright wouldn’t be able to understand, but a record nonetheless.)

So I understand the feelings of dance reconstructors, even if I have never attempted to reconstruct a dance myself. It is an intensely emotional process. You can get so attached to a piece that you feel like it’s your responsibility to bring it back to life. But when you have so little to go on, it’s surely impossible to faithfully reconstruct every single element of a show. You do have to invent your own example of whatever it is you’re trying to resurrect. That doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile thing to do. Can you ever really reconstruct a live performance? No. Should you? Absolutely.

Big questions for a slapdash late-night blog post. Big questions for a very sleepy library science student. (If my fellow citylis students are reading this, I salute you, and wish you luck on your own assignments!) More on this story as it develops.

To finish off, and as per blog tradition: here’s a video. The next show I’ve got booked is “Jewels” at Covent Garden, on Saturday, so I’ll leave you with the trailer.

Thanks for reading!

Documenting Dance: Reading Week

(Very) quick update: I went on a trip!

Specifically, I went to visit the V&A Theatre and Performance collection, which is housed in the beautiful and slightly-hard-to-find Blythe House. (Protip: it is not at the V&A museum in South Kensington. I learned that the hard way.)

Once I’d registered and settled into the reading room, I was presented with a folder full of newspaper clippings and old programmes, and four books that the curator thought I might find useful. I was a kid in a candy store. I can’t put the pictures of the resources up on here due to copyright, but I will definitely be using a lot of them in my final essay.

(Pictured above: “Ooh, what’s in the folder?” “So much! There is so much is in the folder!”)

Highlights of this trip included:

  • A press cutting from 1926
  • A programme from the Palais Garnier’s last production of Macmillan’s The Rite of Spring
  • Photos of the original TROS costumes
  • At least ten different accounts of the original ‘riot’ – proving that when an event only lives in memory, it’s very hard to get one, factual account of it
  • A recreated dance score (more on that later)

Other than that, I’ve been… reading. A lot.

More on this story later, dear readers. I have a ballet to go to tonight.


Documenting Dance: Keeping Score

There are many things in life that I’m not proficient at. One is learning languages. Another is dance. So, you can imagine how interesting this past week has been. (Sidenote: I’m aware it’s been well over a week. This post has been in my drafts for so long, guys, I’m sorry. Every time I thought I was ready to publish, I found out something new!)

First off, I’d like to say that I have become deeply fond of every individual who has ever come up with a dance notation system. Because that means at several points throughout history, someone has sat down to watch a ballet; a long and complex performance with multiple dancers and changes of music and style, and at the end of it, said: “somehow, I have to write that down.” As a librarian-in-training and a balletomane, I resonate with that. I’m the person who saves every ticket stub and cast sheet I ever get into a scrapbook. Those are my people.

The idea of recording physical movement through notation has been taken up by many dancers and dance researchers throughout history. European dance notation is generally agreed to have started with Pierre Beauchamp-Feuillet’s system of recording Baroque dance, and was commissioned by Louis XIV. Dance notation then evolved through various forms and off-shoots devised by choreographers and dancers with different needs. The most popular form of notation used by choreographers in the ballet world today is Benesh notation, which was created by Joan and Rudolf Benesh in the 1950’s. Joan herself was a dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet: her husband Rudolf was a mathematician and artist. It proved to be a well-matched partnership as they combined their twin passions and expertise to create a new language for dance. Benesh notation is used today to both record new works for the future and to learn choreography from previous productions.

Without embarking on a long, comprehensive review of the history of dance notation, I’ve included a short summary of four types of dance notation that each made a significant impact on the documentation of dance. Later I’ll talk about dance notation computer systems, photography and video, scrapbooking, and mime. And also hopefully Stravinsky, at some point.

  1. Beauchamp-Feuillet

Beauchamp’s notation was described in detail for the first time by Raoul-Auger Feuillet in his 1700 work, Choréographie. It was used commonly throughout Europe in the eighteenth century. While several systems of dance notation were developed in 17th century France before this one, Beauchamp’s technique became the most widely used and popular way of recording new dances. Beauchamp’s notation is also arguably the most pleasing to look at, if not the easiest to follow.


The semicircle at the start of the spiral has two lines within it, which denotes that these are steps for female dancers. The main line of the spiral is the spatial line, which shows the path the dancers must take on the stage. Short, straight lines across the spatial path denote the music’s measure marks and show where the dancer should be by the time each measure is up. The actual steps are shown through the thicker, curved lines which follow the spatial path. (Admittedly, I still can’t quite decipher how these work well enough to describe them here, so for anyone who is really interested, here’s a useful link:

  1. Stepanov

Vladimir Ivanovich Stepanov was the first person to create a dance notation system based on anatomical analysis of human movement. He explained this system thoroughly in his 1892 work, Alphabet Des Mouvements Du Corps Humain: Essai D’enregistrement Des Mouvements Du Corps Humain Au Moyen Des Signes Musicaux. (Alphabet of Human Body Movements: An Essay on the Recording of Human Body Movements by means of Musical Signs). The Stepanov system looked a lot like musical notation, as can be seen below:


The Stepanov system is especially significant because it was used to make the first ballet scores of some of the most-loved ballets; brought together in what is called ‘the Sergeyev Collection’. Although this collection of famous Russian ballets were (mostly) composed by Marius Petipa and recorded by Stepanov, the collection is named after Nicholas Sergeyev; régisseur of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, who brought the collection out of Russia after the Russian Revolution of 1917. While not every score in the collection is complete, it stands as a hugely important historical source and is now kept in the Harvard University Library theatre collection. The works in the Sergeyev Collection include Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, and Swan Lake: so where on earth would we be without it?

3. Labanotation

(Motto of the Dance Notation Bureau)

Rudolf Laban devised this notation system in 1928 and developed it through the 30’s.  Labanotation is the system of choice for the Dance Notation Bureau, set up in New York City in 1940 with the intention of preserving choreographic works. As well as keeping scores in labanotation, the bureau also collects programmes, video tapes/files, and photographs. (You can imagine how badly I want to visit.) It’s important to note that Labanotation was devised to record any kind of human movement, such as ice skating and swimming, not especially ballet or dance. This website provides a fascinating account of how it works, because I’ll be frank, readers: I don’t understand a single symbol of it. I do think it’s beautiful, though, and it’s even inspired designers!


4. Benesh

Okay, this is the big one. As I wrote earlier, Benesh notation was developed by Joan and Rudolf Benesh in the 1950’s. According to the Benesh Institute website, Benesh notation is used for;

  • choreographers to protect their copyright and as a reference for work-in-progress
  • dancers to learn their roles directly or through a notator
  • dance students to improve movement vocabulary and observation skills
  • dance teachers to read dances from the repertoire, plan classes, record choreography and study exercises in the RAD’s examination syllabi
  • dance scholars for academic research
  • dance stagers who teach from a ‘text’ designed in a succinct and analysed form
  • dance notators (also known as Benesh Choreologists) within dance companies
  • the RAD to communicate with our multi-lingual members
  • dance companies to record and maintain repertoire works
  • opera and musical industry to record choreography for rehearsals and re-staging
  • film and TV industry to plan and record movement content
  • anthropologists as an analytical tool, and
  • clinicians and physiotherapists to analyse patients’ movement, gait and posture.

Benesh is the notation system of choice for most choreographers and ballet archivists today, and the single notation system for the Royal Academy of Dance, (whose library I am hoping to visit soon!)


As you can see, much like the Stepanov system, Benesh looks a lot like music notation. It work with the music stave much more fluidly than the other systems, in my opinion, and it will be the Benesh system that I’ll be looking at most when it comes to The Rite of Spring.

In reading week I have two appointments booked; one for the V&A Performance and Collection archives, where I’ll be looking at everything and anything they have on the original 1913 TROS production, and the other for the English National Ballet’s archives, where I will be a kid in a candy shop looking at anything I’m allowed to see. I can’t wait! My next posts will be write-ups of those visits, as well as a look at programmes and other forms of ballet-related documents and how those are collected and kept.

Here’s your video for this week; Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball rehearsing for The Sleeping Beauty, which I’m going to see this coming Thursday. It’ll be my first TSB and I’m ridiculously excited – it just looks so pretty!


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