U2 in the Rock Hall Library + Archives: Open for Learning

I was on the campus of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland Monday night for the dedication of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum’s ‘s new Library + Archives. It was one of those galas that mixes rockers, civic leaders, symphony directors, donors, arts patrons, college presidents, scholars, journalists and the random @U2 blogger, where everyone puts on their nicest, blackest outfit or defies convention (très R’n’R) and wears their favorite flannel and concert T-shirt combo.

There’s Rock Hall VP and long-time friend of U2 Jim Henke ready to cut the ribbon (center), with Rock Hall prez & CEO Terry Stewart to the left, and Tri-C prez Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton and prez & CEO of the RNRHF Foundation Joel Peresman to the right.

The Library + Archives is in a brand-new $35 million facility, and it is the most comprehensive repository of materials related to the history of rock and roll. Its HVAC system has its own back-up HVAC system, and it has that wonderful library vibe of every effort being made to simultaneously make history available to you and prevent you from smearing, smudging, or smuggling history away. (Many measures have been taken so Elvis, as well as Scotty Moore, does NOT leave the building.)

There are books, magazines, scholarly journals, dissertations, songbooks, sheet music, personal correspondence, handwritten lyrics and song manuscripts, business documents, photographs, posters, flyers, and press releases, as well as audio and visual recordings. Best of all: it’s free to use and open to the public.

The RNRHF Foundation has been acquiring archival material for decades, with most of it sitting in storage facilities. It has always been the dream of Jann Wenner and others, Henke said, to have a research library open to the public. Now, under the leadership of Director Andy Leach and his amazing staff, even though only a fraction of the material in the archives has been cataloged (I overheard only 30% of the archives are in the searchable system — can that be right?), there’s plenty available to start a research or education project.

So say, for example, you want to learn about U2 just because you do, or maybe because you are getting ready for another U2 Conference or want to submit an article to the U2 Journal. You can walk in off the street or search the online catalog from home for free. You’ll see there are 84 items right now listed for a search for U2. You might learn, as I did, that a new book by photographer Gary Neull was published last year, titled Every Picture Sings a Story: A Musical Memoir, which apparently has U2 content in it. Or that a biography of Bono for young readers from Christin Ditchfield was published in 2008. (Children’s books are in the library too, such as the picture book The ABCs of Rock.)

You can limit your searches just as you can in any good library catalog, and cross-listing searches come in handy too (Bono,  or Island Records, for example. There are currently three dissertations on U2 in the collection; they have Pim Jal de la Parra’s “Collectormania” magazines from 1987-1995; and there are the audio and visual materials you would expect. (Keep in mind the library is not trying to have exhaustive collections, and they have much more to enter into their system.)

The real gems of this library are items labeled “archival.”  These are the business documents, contracts, setlists, personal correspondences, photographs, posters, sketches (of, say, stage diagrams or costumes), and rare recordings, bootlegs, or videos. The Rock Hall will buy some archival material, but it mainly relies on donations from people in the music industry, artists, and collectors. So, it can be hit or miss when it comes to finding what you are looking for. The U2 archival material is scant right now, mainly because Paul McGuinness and Larry Mullen Jr. have most of the paperwork and “ephemera” (an archivist’s oft used term for “stuff”) U2 has produced over the last thirty years under lock and key. Surely Island Records/Universal has quite a bit filed away too.

Maybe you can help the Library + Archives by donating your second complete set of “Propaganda” magazines? Or the leaflets you picked up off the street outside some concert hall in 1984 that show the supporting acts touring with U2? Or perhaps you worked on the catering team for both the ZooTV tour and the U2 360 tour and you saved all the orders for the meals you prepared for the band on the road? Such records give historians and scholars more than a gossipy glimpse into the lifestyles of mega-star bands: they help tell a story of excess, of restraint, of budgeting, and of how rock stars change their “performance diets” as they age.

Eventually, though, kind-hearted record company executives donate their papers to the Rock Hall, as Clive Davis did with his correspondence with various artists from 1963-2001, and sometimes artists do too, as Art Garfunkel did. When they do, we can begin to learn more about how rock and roll has been made, performed, recorded, and disseminated. So, there’s hope the U2 collection will continue to grow and grow, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that Cleveland just took this giant leap forward to make it the city the world will come to for studying (and enjoying) rock and roll.

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