The Rock Hall's long-awaited public archive takes shape

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum has been a work in progress since its 1995 opening. The Hall of Fame itself, where the inductees are enshrined, was moved to a different location and completely reconceived after negative feedback from visitors. The promised education component with Cuyahoga Community College, the conduit for the state money provided to build the museum, wasn't established until the early 2000s, but now is growing rapidly.

Then there was that promise that the Rock Hall would contain a "world-class library and archives" that would attract scholars, authors and journalists from around the world. But stuff was collected in a sort of random fashion, stored here and there and who knows where. Like the performance space that was supposed to be in the building plans, the library/archive space didn't make the final cut.

Back in 1996, then-director of education Bob Santelli said, "We don't have the space yet. I can collect things now, but no one will have access to them for three years or so. Once we get the space, we'll need to hire a librarian and an archivst."

Santelli was optimistic. But just as the groundbreaking for the Rock Hall silenced skeptics who thought it would never be built, the long-promised archive is actually going to happen. Built as part of the Center for Creative Arts at Tri-C's Metro campus, and co-funded by Tri-C and the Rock Hall, the four-story facility is scheduled to open in late 2010.

The building, which has been going up for the past two years, is complete; students and faculty have already moved into the Tri-C section. In the archives section, ranks of empty shelves await materials currently being processed by director Andy Leach, who came here from Chicago's Center for Black Music Research in January 2009, and his staff and volunteers.

"When I got here, everything was unprocessed and uncataloged," says Leach. With warrens of behind-the-scenes rooms designed for intake, processing, digitizing and, eventually, a conservation lab, as well as two climate-controlled, high-density storage rooms for materials, the shell exists and is slowly being filled. Leach is following the blueprint that Santelli established a decade and a half ago.

"We're focusing on personal papers and primary resources that will make our archives stand out — collections that will only be available here," says Leach.

One of the collections the archives has already received belonged to the late Ahmet Ertegun, Rock Hall founder and former head of Atlantic Records, and the man for whom the Rock Hall's main exhibition hall is named. The collection includes Ertegun's letters and other personal papers, as well as his library of music-related books. Performers like Curtis Mayfield and Art Garfunkel and writers like Ben Fong-Torres and Robert Christgau have also donated collections.

Although the archives is collecting books, periodicals and some commercial recordings, Leach says this won't be its primary focus. Possibly the world's most comprehensive collection of these pop-music-related recordings, magazines and books already exists just two hours from Cleveland, at Bowling Green State University's Sound Recording Archives. Archivist Bill Schurk has spent 40 years haunting garage sales and secondhand stores to build up Bowling Green's monumental collection.

The other large collection that already existed when the Rock Hall was putting its archives on the back burner is New York's ARChive of Contemporary Music, founded in 1985. It boasts that it is the largest collection in the world, with millions of recordings, press kits, books, photos and other memorabilia. But that privately owned archives has been unselective in its collecting, its cataloging not up to library standards. Nor is the collection available to the public, much of it having been in storage for years. That could change after a partnership it forged with Columbia University last year.

Other collections have specific focuses. The strength of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesobro is American vernacular music dating back to the early 18th century. It does collect rock and roll, including contemporary rock, as part of a continuum from rock's roots. The Archive of Popular American Music at UCLA has its depth in film- and television-related music.

Leach says that the Rock Hall facility is looking to work with other libraries and archives that have rock music components. "It's a very collegial profession," he says.

In fact, they've already talked informally with Bowling Green, looking at ways to encourage scholars, authors, journalists and fans to make two stops during their trip to Ohio. Leach says he's also recently contacted Middle Tennessee State, and they're planning to initiate discussions in a few weeks about ways to work together. With catalogs and even materials going online, there are far more avenues for collaboration than there were 20 years ago, when the Rock Hall Archives was in the talking stages.

Susannah Cleveland, head librarian at BGSU's music library and sound recordings archives of the BGSU pop music archives, says that she and Schurk have had casual discussions with the Rock Hall over the years about possible collaborations, and that she's been to Cleveland a couple of times to look at the budding archives here. She has also had ongoing conversations with Leach, whom she's known since his days in Chicago.

"When I first got here [in 2006], we spoke with [the Bowling Green staff] a couple of times," she says. "They were curious about things about gate counts and what kind of scholarly traffic to expect. I think we're both keen to plug the gap in our scholarship. We all have limited resources and limited space. We want to be sure we cover the ground. Ultimately, it's nothing but good for us. For some time, a lot of people have combined visits to our collection with visits to the Rock Hall. Now they can have other needs met while they're in Cleveland too — some of their more scholarly needs.

"There is a richness to our collection I don't think could be easily duplicated by anyone anytime," she adds. "I think they are definitely doing something different. They have access to key players in the music industry, which we don't. So they're much better equipped to collect those very rare materials."

"We don't need to have the greatest collection of LPs," says Leach, referring to one of Bowling Green's strengths. "We're going to try not to duplicate collecting efforts. We're talking about finding ways to help each other rather than step on each other's toes. We can complement what they have with our primary resources of papers, photos, audio and video."

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