Columbia Partners With ARChive
of Contemporary Music

by John Uhl

A little foot-tapping, hand-clapping and dancing may be in order at Columbia. A treasure trove of popular music—the world’s largest—is coming to the University.

The musical wealth arrives thanks to a recent agreement between Columbia University Libraries, the Arts Initiative at Columbia and the ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC). This vast collection of sound recordings, books, photos, films, and music-related memorabilia will assist future research and help further integrate the arts into the University's educational experience.
 
Bob George, ARC founder and director, poses with a small sample of the massive collection. [Image credit: The ARChive of Contemporary Music]
Bob George, ARC founder and director, poses with a small sample of the massive collection.
Image credit: The ARChive of Contemporary Music
ARC collects popular recordings from around the world made since 1950. "Every style of music, two copies of each," says its founder and director, Bob George, "except for classical-era Western art music," such as Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, which he says other libraries already excel at collecting.
 
ARC has more than two million sound recordings, including a 50,000 disc world music  collection and the Keith Richards Blues Collection, endowed by the Rolling Stones guitarist, which recently acquired a rare original recording of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues."
 
The collection began with 47,000 records that George acquired in the 1970s as a disc jockey and record producer. "Most of them were reggae, hip-hop, punk, art and experimental—sort of exactly what pop music is today, a blend of all those things—and nobody wanted the records," he says. He tried, unsuccessfully, to donate them to libraries in the early 1980s, then founded ARC in 1985.  
 
Just what qualifies as popular music is open to interpretation at ARC. "We have no interest in quality, whatsoever," says George. In fact, unlike other music collections, George says ARC was the result of "collecting information about sound recordings that no one else was interested in," like punk rock and rap singles, which 25 years later are considered culturally significant.
 
ARC also contains some three million books, photographs, press kits, videos and other musical ephemera. One of the first projects to be undertaken through the new partnership will be a user-friendly, online version of ARC's catalog. "Our first step is to make sure that our researchers, and researchers across the world, know what's there and that they can get at it," says Damon Jaggars, Columbia’s associate university librarian for collections and services.  He describes ARC as a "deep collection" with "a lot of energy" that will help support future research as well as current research and teaching at the University. ARC’s board of advisors includes such artistic luminaries as David Bowie, Jellybean Benitez, Jonathan Demme, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Youssou N'Dour, Lou Reed and Paul Simon.
 
The Columbia Arts Initiative will also work with ARC to develop public programming such as concerts and exhibitions.  Although much is still open for discussion—right now a faculty advising group is being formed to consult in the ARC collaboration—Arts Initiative Director Gregory Mosher sees the archive as "a vast and potentially powerful way to reach into the both extracurricular and pedagogical mission of the University," from providing students researching the Depression with song lyrics of the period to staging performances and events that would involve the local community. 
 
"Where this is all headed, we hope, is toward the creation of the first Center for Popular Music," Mosher says. The idea for such a center is still in its infancy, but "you can easily imagine Columbians and New Yorkers coming together in this place to experience music and to learn more about music and musical history," he adds.

Indeed, it was George, says Mosher, who "understood before anybody else understood how this music was able to reveal culture, both American and world culture."

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