Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tour of the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive

Deaf-Mutes Journal, 1899

Typically, the cultural heritage institutions I've toured aren't directly connected to me, except in terms of my interest in their holdings and archivists/curators. However, the Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute of the Deaf (RIT/NTID) Deaf Studies Archive's collections have a different affect on me.

During my MLIS studies, I took two courses that resonated very deeply with me and influenced the descriptive aspect of my archives work in a large way. The two courses were Human Information Behavior (HIB) and Art Librarianship. In the Art Librarianship course, one assignment was to create an annotated bibliography for a very narrow topic. I love a good annotated bibliography (and a challenge), and I had a very narrow topic from a paper I had written for HIB -- "Information Seeking Behaviors of Deaf Culture Artists."

I don't remember how I came across Deaf Culture Artists, but I thought the artists (and deaf patrons as a whole) might be a vastly under-served group when it came to library services. Both the professors of these courses recommended that I submit the large paper, with the attached bibliography, to Art Documentation, the journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America. I was grateful for the encouragement because the paper was eventually published.

Ameslan Prohibited, Betty G. Miller

During the writing/editing of the published paper, I was in contact with two wonderful members of the Deaf Culture Art community, Dr. Betty G. Miller and Patti Durr. They both were very helpful and gave me a great deal of information on De'VIA and RIT's programs, respectively. When MARAC announced that it was holding the Spring 2014 meeting in Rochester, I knew I had to ask for a tour of the Archive.

About My Hosts, Becky Simmons and Joan Naturale
Becky Simmons, RIT Archivist and Joan Naturale, NTID Reference Librarian were very kind and gracious hosts. Becky provided me with a background on the overall RIT archives, while Joan highlighted collection standouts and explained their cultural importance. Prior to joining RIT, Becky served in multiple positions over 18 years at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Joan's background includes teaching high school English to deaf students at the Alabama School for the Deaf, serving as English Instructional Specialist for deaf students at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, and Librarian at the Austine School for the Deaf. She also taught American Sign Language and English classes to middle and high school students at Austine. Becky has been at RIT for 11 years, and Joan will celebrate her 15th year in July.

During the tour, Joan also introduced me to Jeanne Behm, RIT American Sign Language & Deaf Studies Community Center Coordinator. You'll meet her later in two videos (below). Both Joan and Jeanne were interpreted by Jonathan Hopkins, NTID Associate Interpreter. 

Becky Simmons, RIT Archivist, with Newby Ely Collection posters featuring deaf characters.

Joan Naturale, NTID Reference Librarian, with Deaf Characters in Films Collection posters featuring deaf characters.

About the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive
The Archive is a subset of the RIT Archive Collections, which also contains the university archives, a substantial art collection, and special collections. According to its web site, the Archive's charge is to document "RIT’s central role in educating the Deaf and hard of hearing in the United States and draws from Rochester's significant Deaf community. The main focus of the archive is Deaf culture, Deaf studies, Deaf education, Deaf theater, Deaf artists and Deafness."

Established in 2006, the Archive includes NTID records, collections by and about Robert Panara (the first deaf faculty member), Harry Lang research files (another longtime NTID faculty member), Deaf Rochester Film Festival records, Student Life tapes, Lights On! Deaf Theater records, Lee Brody TTY Phone Collection, Patti Durr Deaf Holocaust Survivor Interviews and Films, International Archive of Deaf Artists, and many more (follow this link to see the entire list).

Joan says, "The most popular collections are NTID History materials, NTID/Deaf Theater materials, Tripod, Deaf Films Posters, the Panara collections, Lang collections, deaf artwork, the first videophone, Ahira Webster diary, and Deaf during WW II/Holocaust materials." The Archive has 2-3 visitors per week, not counting e-mail and phone inquiries. The types of materials patrons can experience include paper, photographs, artwork, electronic files, and videos.

Of the many items in the Archive, Joan's favorites are "Deaf artwork because many deaf artists express themselves via De’VIA, a unique art form, but there are talented traditional deaf artists as well... Panara collections because he was the first Deaf faculty to teach deaf studies, particularly deaf characters in literature and film, and he is a talented writer/poet and sign artist."

In the video below, Joan uses materials from the Deaf Characters in Film Collection (purchased with library budget funds) to tell me about Charlie Chaplin's deaf actor, Granville Redmond.

She also favors the Lang collections "because of his in-depth research and biographies on influential deaf people in various fields that we didn’t know were deaf such as Ruth Benedict, Dorothy Fisher, etc."

First Videophone used on campus

Other materials that top Joan's list: "The first videophone that was used at NTID for a few years in the late 1960s, which was created by a Rochester company and shows that NTID was innovative and ahead of its time; the deaf survivors of WWII materials; Tripod materials because this was the first bilingual/bicultural school in the U.S. located in the LA area where both deaf and hearing children were taught together using sign language with two teachers also using sign language; and the Ahira Webster diary (from Fredonia, NY) which describes life at the N.Y. State School for the Deaf in Fanwood in the pre Civil War era."

Regarding the Ahira Webster diary, see the video below for Joan's explanation of how it and the newspaper at the top of this post were found.

The video below shows Joan talking to me about Webster's diary itself.

In our email correspondence, Joan told me that that the collection that has had the greatest impact on the patrons is the Deaf Art/Deaf Artists collection. She explains, "Many are attracted to the visual arts and a Deaf Art course is taught on campus. We have a Deaf Union Flag created by a French Deaf artist, Arnaud Balard, which shows a turquoise hand outlined in gold against a dark blue background. The colors have symbolic meanings: turquoise represents sign language and the sky; gold represents knowledge, light, hope, enlightenment and sun; and dark blue represents Deafhood, an individual and collective journey to combat audism and embrace Deaf Gain. Paddy Ladd, who coined the term Deafhood, established the Blue Ribbon ceremony to commemorate deaf people’s experiences around the globe, and this color is used by the organization The World Federation of the Deaf (the Nazis also assigned this color to identify deaf people during WWII)."

The video below features Joan showing me the flag and explaining its meaning.

In Fall 2015, NTID will be celebrating 25 years of De'VIA art, and will be exhibiting some of the works. Currently, De'VIA works are on exhibit at the RIT American Sign Language and Deaf Studies Community Center at the Wallace Library (downstairs from the Archive), in Joan Naturale's office, and at NTID's Roscia Hall. On the way to the Center, we dropped by Joan's office where she showed me some De'VIA art (shown below).

L’abbé de L’Epée (lightbox), created by Arnaud Balard, 2012

Deaf Women Soup created by Ann Silver, 1995

At the Center, I met Jeanne Behm, RIT American Sign Language & Deaf Studies Community Center Coordinator. In the two videos below, she talks with me about Arnaud Balard's work George Veditz, as well as Uzi Buzgalo's Artwork, Flower of Lanugage.

Rochester, N.Y. has the largest deaf population per capita, even larger than Washington, D.C., where Gallaudet University sits. Because the Archive collects materials on the history of NTID's founding; deaf education; and many more influential materials on local, U.S., and international deaf culture, it serves the need of preserving this important portion of our collective historical memory. If you travel to the Rochester area, don't miss visiting the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive.

Contact Information
Becky Simmons,, (585) 475-2557
Joan Naturale,, (585) 286-4635
The Wallace Center
Rochester Institute of Technology
90 Lomb Memorial Dr.
Rochester, NY 14623

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