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University of Maryland Libraries Acquires Ford’s Theatre Records

The landmark theater’s drama archives find the perfect home at the Libraries’ Special Collections in Performing Arts

Memorabilia from Ford's Theatre.

The University of Maryland Libraries is excited to announce the acquisition of Ford’s Theatre records. The Ford’s Theatre records will be archived with Special Collections in Performing Arts (SCPA) and located in the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library.

The historic Ford’s Theatre opened in Washington D.C. in 1863. Less than two years later it would be the stage for a national tragedy; President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth while attending a performance on April 14, 1865. After various phases and transformations—it was, at times, a clerical office, warehouse, and museum—the theater reopened its stage in 1968 for public performances.

While the theater will always be synonymous with this infamous moment in history, it has also made significant contributions to the drama scene for more than half a century. “Ford’s established itself as an innovative place for performance in both the D.C. and national theater communities, independent of the profound historical event that occurred on the site,” says John Davis, SCPA curator.

Over the last couple decades, SCPA has expanded its focus on music to include dance and theater, and has steadily been building up its archives from D.C.-area theater in particular, including materials from the Studio Theatre, African Continuum Theater Company, New Playwrights’ Theatre, and Smallbeer Theatre Company. “We’re working to make SCPA a hub for D.C.-area theater research,” says Davis. “Adding an outstanding collection like the Ford’s records is a critical part of achieving that goal.”

Theater scholars have already voiced their enthusiasm for the collection. “When used in conjunction with other theater archives in the Baltimore–Washington area, [the Ford’s records] will be especially valuable and will ensure the presence of additional theater scholars on our campus,” says Dr. Franklin Hildy, Professor of Theatre Scholarship and Performance Studies and Associate Director, School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies.

“An archive that shows Ford’s trajectory and production history over a span of decades would be a tremendous asset for researchers in a variety of fields,” says Dr. Erin Bone Steele, M.A., Theatre and Criticism ’08, Ph.D., Theatre and Performance Studies ’12. “I cannot think of a better place for this archive to be housed than the University of Maryland Libraries.”

Davis has been integral to the acquisition, working with Ford’s Theatre to appraise and select the materials that would make their way to College Park. “Seeing photographs of productions from the 1970s and ’80s was really exciting. Those rare images are such a powerful and evocative way to convey what a performance was like. We’re eager to make them accessible to patrons.”

Once the last box arrives, special collections librarians will begin processing the materials, which includes rehousing materials into acid-free boxes, creating an inventory, and writing a finding aid that helps researchers navigate the collection. This will take at least a year to complete. In the meantime, Davis is happy to answer eager researchers’ questions about the contents of the collection in preparation for their eventual availability.

“Aside from the richly illustrative visual materials, there is so much information in the collection about how Ford’s Theatre operates, the decisions they made, whom they worked with, and more,” says Davis. “There are thousands of stories within this collection, and SCPA hopes we can help researchers tell them.”

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