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Interview: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Library and Archives

Posted on November 08 2016

Custom record crates Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Library and Archives

Over the summer during a trip to Cleveland, I had the opportunity to check out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as take a tour of the museums' Library and Archives, lead by Head Archivist, Jennie Thomas. This fall, we were thrilled to work with the team and to build custom record crates and dividers for LPs and 45s their Northeast Ohio music initiative, NEO Sound. We designed alphabetical engraved record dividers for the LPs and 45s in their NEO Sound collection, engraved with the Rock Hall logo.

Custom record dividers for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Library and Archives

The archive is an amazing collection of music history with over 100,000 pieces of vinyl, including LPs, 45s and 78s. During our chat and tour, I was struck by the size of the collection and the diversity of material. Jennie showed me drawers of music posters, original handwritten lyrics, masters, cassettes of live shows, even one of LL Cool J's early notebooks (!!!). The massive job of preserving and cataloging this collection is the responsibility of Jennie and the rest of the archive team. Jennie was kind to tell us more about her work at the Archive, and share some advice for home collectors on caring for and preserving their own home collections.

About Jennie Thomas:

I'm the Head Archivist at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Library and Archives, where I manage all archival operations and public services. I direct policies and procedures regarding the arrangement, description and preservation of archival collections,  supervise the archives and public services staff, and manage Reading Room operations. I work with donors on potential gifts of archival collections and am the first point of contact for the majority of those seeking to do research in those collections. I've worked in libraries and archives for the past 18 years.

Tell us a bit about the Library and Archives: 
The Library and Archives is the most comprehensive repository of materials relating to the history of rock and roll. Our mission is to collect, preserve and provide access to these resources for scholars, educators, students, journalists and the general public in order to broaden awareness and understanding of rock and roll, its roots and its impact on our society. We opened in the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts building on the Cuyahoga Community College Metro campus in 2012.

Custom record dividers for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Library and Archives

Size of the collection at the Archive: 
There are currently 467 archival collections available to the public for research, as well as over 8,000 cataloged books, 1,300 commercial video recordings, 5,500 commercial audio recordings, 600 dissertations, 800 periodical titles and 400 scores. Archival collections include personal papers, business records, photographs and recordings of performers and those connected to the business of rock and roll, including disc jockeys, managers, producers and record executives; personal papers, writings and research of scholars, journalists and critics; records of businesses and other organizations, including record labels, management and booking agencies, radio stations, recording studios, and publishing houses; and the institutional records of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including original, uncut video from Rock Hall events and educational programs, such as the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies and series Annual Music Masters, Hall of Fame and Songwriters to Soundmen. Personal papers may include correspondence, scrapbooks, journals, song and lyric manuscripts; business records: financial documents, contracts, memoranda, reports, promotional materials, radio playlists, and studio logs. You can get a sense of our collections by looking at our online catalog: http://catalog.rockhall.com/.

How is the collection primarily organized?  
The organization of our materials is based first upon whether it is a library item, museum artifact, or archival collection. If it is a library item, it is given a Library of Congress classification and the materials are organized based on those call numbers, size, and rarity. Museum artifacts are given numbers associated with when they are donated and organized by format/size. For archival collections, we strive to retain the collection creator's original order whenever possible, which usually tends to be alphabetical by file name or chronological. Sometimes, however, there is no discernible order or purpose to the arrangement, and in those instances we create levels of organization within collections based on types or formats or contents of materials in order to make collections easier for researchers to use and to find what they're looking for. 

Where does most of the collection come from? 
The majority of our collections come to us through generous donations of materials, but we do have a budget for purchasing library materials in order to keep the collection current with new publications on rock and roll, roots music and related genres. 

Most unusual or rare item in the archives?
Archives are inherently rare or unique, authentic and impartial; demonstrating the organic nature of things and their interrelationships, so it's difficult to say what the most rare item is. That being said, one of the most unique, and certainly the most monetarily valuable, items in the collection is Jimi Hendrix's handwritten lyrics to "Purple Haze" from 1966. The lyrics were written in the dressing room of the Upper Cut Club in London and were purportedly pulled from the trash by a woman he knew and put up for auction in the early 1990s.

What is your favorite part of the collection?
My favorite item in the collection is the handwritten lyrics to "Blue Valentines" by Tom Waits (https://tmblr.co/ZgVcio1BpNk5e)--one of my Top 5 artists. They're written in different inks, some lines are scratched out and replaced, a phone number is scrawled in the margin, and coffee stains the pages. It really illustrates the work that went into crafting a beautiful depiction of guilt, remorse and heartbreak.

Tell us a bit about the vinyl portion in the collection:
Our vinyl collection accumulated for many years prior to the creation of the Library and Archives and contains about 100,000 pieces, including 45s, 78s and LPs. Individual's collections were donated in their entirety, so there exists a wide range of genres, everything from classical performances to punk rock. For the past several years our wonderful group of volunteers has been going through the vinyl to inventory it and document condition and duplication. Once the inventory is complete, we will be able to define our "core collection" of vinyl and determine what items can be withdrawn from the collection in order to save space in our environmentally-controlled storage areas. That core collection will then be cataloged and the records made available in our online catalog: https://rockhall.on.worldcat.org/discovery.  

If you had a few pieces of advice to give to a home collector, what are some tips to help keep their collections well-protected?
The most important thing to remember in preserving your analog collections is to not store collections in attics, basements or garages, near kitchens or bathrooms, or in brightly lit spaces. Temperature and humidity fluctuations and extremes destroy, as does direct and prolonged exposure to light. At the same time, don't forget to preserve your digital collections! They are much more at risk than physical collections as hard drives fail, files become corrupted, the software to open proprietary file formats becomes obsolete, CDs and USB drives are easily be lost and/or damaged, and so on. The bottom line is to keep at least 2 copies of digital information in different locations and to check those files once a year to ensure the files, the software, and the hardware needed are all still available and operational.

Custom record crates Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Library and Archives

Tell us about the NEO Sound project and listening station in the library:
NEO Sound is a local music collecting initiative that currently comprises over 65 archival collections (including personal papers, correspondence, photographs, song manuscripts, business records, posters, and rare audio and video recordings) and over 600 library items (including books, dissertations, magazines and journals, commercial audio and video recordings, and sheet music) that focus on popular music, musicians, radio stations, record labels, recording studios, music venues, concert promoters, booking agencies, and music publishers in Northeast Ohio. 

What's the best way to help support the archives?
There's information on the Rock Hall's website on how to support us: https://www.rockhall.com/support, whether that be in the form of volunteering, becoming a member, or making a donation.

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