Amanda Hawk 2017-07-11 15:24:28
Gymkana is one of the more unique organizations—and one of the longest-running student groups—at the University of Maryland (UMD). Established in 1946 by physical education instructor David A. Field, Gymkana is a co-ed exhibition gymnastics troupe for students that focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles and the sport of gymnastics through education, entertainment, and outreach. The troupe accepts students of all abilities, regardless of their gymnastics experience, and teaches its members to perform in such acts as vaulting, chair balancing, and the fan-favorite Ring of Fire before more than 25,000 people each year. But while Gymkana’s performances have garnered local and national attention (most notably as semifinalists on America’s Got Talent in 2011), the rich history of the troupe remained hidden in the university archives. Framing the Project The Gymkana troupe transferred materials documenting the history of the organization to the archives in 2008. A folder inventory for the paper records, including original performance programs, scrapbook pages, newspaper clippings, and team histories, was completed during the accessioning process. However, the majority of the collection consisted of more than 50 binders containing upwards of 15,000 photographs and slides with little to no descriptive metadata beyond approximate date ranges. Box-level description of the photographic material hindered widespread use of the images, even by the troupe itself. When Gymkana celebrated its 70th anniversary as a student group at UMD in 2016, it provided the perfect opportunity to engage with the collection material. Gymkana staff hoped to highlight the team’s milestones and accomplishments during their anniversary year and reached out to the archives for assistance. The troupe envisioned creating a vibrant website to showcase their history year by year, display digital images and video clips of performances, and reach hundreds of alumni, family members, and fans. The resulting project—which is still ongoing—is designed to accomplish several goals: 1) digitize audiovisual material and photographs at risk of deterioration, 2) provide access to a hidden collection, and 3) involve Gymkana’s active student membership and alumni network in fundraising and metadata creation. Crowdfunding and Campus Outreach In my capacity as athletics archivist, I became the point person for the UMD Libraries in collaborating with Gymkana, working closely with the troupe’s assistant director, Ben Prescott. After discussing the project goals, Gymkana staff submitted a proposal to LaunchUMD, the University of Maryland’s own crowdfunding platform, which was accepted. The troupe’s 30-day fundraising campaign ran from February 8 to March 8, 2016. The timeline allowed the group to take advantage of its busiest months of the year—a series of performances in schools throughout the mid-Atlantic region, plus two nights of shows at the university to end the season. The Gymkana troupe members completed the bulk of the work to prepare for, publicize, and manage the crowdfunding campaign, though the archives staff provided advice and promoted the project through social media. We were excited to surpass the initial campaign goal of $15,000, and ultimately raised $26,050 in thirty days! The funds will help digitize and make widely accessible the troupe’s photographic and audiovisual materials, as well as cover storage costs and website upkeep. This project was one of three crowdfunded initiatives to raise more than $25,000 to support the UMD Libraries in the past two years (https://www.launch.umd.edu/g/pastprojects). To bring further attention to the troupe and their crowdfunding efforts, I curated and installed an exhibit inside the entrance of UMD’s main library. The exhibit, “Timeless Traditions: Celebrating 70 Years of Gymkana,” focused on the troupe’s diverse outreach programs, such as travels to visit military troops at home and abroad, summer camp sessions for kids ages 5–16, and the promotion of healthy and drug-free living in the community. Description and Digitization During the start of the crowdfunding campaign, we began preparing material for digitization by creating enhanced metadata. Gymkana’s assistant director was eager to involve the current troupe members in this aspect of the project. We arranged for groups of students to visit the archives’ reading room on select Sunday afternoons during the spring semester to identify photographs and slides. I created a metadata spreadsheet and an instruction guide explaining how to create standardized values for each field (ex. unique identifier, title, date, subject tags). The spreadsheet was shared online via Google Sheets with tabs corresponding to each box number. This allowed all the project collaborators to access the information simultaneously without needing to create multiple versions of files. The students’ knowledge of team history and their expertise in quickly identifying the troupe’s acts and routines contributed greatly to the description project. Over the course of three afternoons, the students helped identify eleven boxes of photos and slides. We also hope to take advantage of the wide Gymkana alumni network to help identify people in the digitized photos—perhaps using Flickr or another platform conducive to crowdsourcing. With the LaunchUMD funds in hand, digitization of the collection material began in October 2016. Rather than starting with photographs, as initially planned, we first digitized 72 videotapes and DVDs documenting the troupe’s performances from 1970 to 2015. We designated these items as high priority based on the troupe’s needs, the expected use of the digitized footage, and the potential deterioration of the videotapes from the 1970s–1990s. The materials returned from our offsite vendor in December 2016, and copies of the digitized files were delivered to the Gymkana staff. Next Steps There is still plenty to do, but progress toward all key goals is underway. One benefit of the publicity surrounding the crowdfunding campaign has been the number of new acquisitions received by the archives from the current troupe and troupe alumni, including a member of the team from 1948 to 1951. The archives staff is working to add inventories of the original Gymkana collection and subsequent accessions to UMD’s ArchivesSpace interface, providing a much-needed access point for the public. Later this year, we will begin digitizing photographic material selected by Gymkana staff and determine the best method of crowdsourcing metadata from alumni. The fruitful partnership that developed between the university archives and the Gymkana troupe both expanded the scope of the project and ultimately allowed for greater success. This initiative clearly demonstrated that open communication, flexibility, organization, and enthusiasm are essential qualities when collaborating with donors. I am particularly grateful for the troupe’s eagerness to participate in every aspect of the project. We hope to use this partnership as a compelling test case for outreach to other student organizations and look forward to preserving more campus history. To learn more about saving Gymkana’s archives, see http://www.gymkana.umd.edu/support or email Amanda Hawk at email@example.com.
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