Meet Rock and Roll librarian Andy Leach

Andy Leach “It was a huge treat to accompany George Clinton, the godfather of funk, behind the scenes. He was really engaged by everything he saw—from original Jimi Hendrix lyrics to Beatles autographs to archival photos of Frankie Lymon,” says Andy Leach, '96 LAS, MS '00 LIS, library director for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. (Photo by Eric Mull)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s library director on having his dream job, giving tours to George Clinton and Chuck Berry, and playing guitar in his college band, The Bludgers.

When I saw the ad for the director of library and archives position at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2008, I jumped at it. At the time, I had a terrific job as a librarian and archivist at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. Because my area of expertise is American popular music, I was confident I would at least get an interview. But things worked out better than expected.

There is no question: I have my dream job. It’s no exaggeration to say that I learn something new every day. I read something about a producer or a songwriter, and suddenly I have a richer understanding of how this music was born.

The museum opened in 1995, but the library and archives didn’t open to the public until 2012. I was hired three years before that. Part of my job involved getting things off the ground, and determining staffing, budgeting and how things would be done. We also needed to digitize a huge part of our holdings: performances, interviews, oral histories and more. Once we got that under control, I could focus on collecting materials from donors and helping curators with exhibits.

We are the only publicly accessible library devoted to rock and roll in the world, and as such, we are constantly being visited by journalists, scholars and fans. Presently, we have more than 4,000 linear feet of material—correspondence, contracts, flyers, posters, appointment books. We have the personal papers of Ahmet Ertegun, who founded Atlantic Records and was one of the prime movers behind creating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We also have the papers of Seymour Stein, founder of Sire records, which among other things recorded the Ramones and Talking Heads, and helped establish punk and new wave; Joe Smith, who ran many labels and signed the Grateful Dead; and Mo Ostin, who signed Jimi Hendrix to a record deal after his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. We also have the papers of Big Joe Turner and Louis Jordan, stars of the 1940s and 1950s who were rock and roll progenitors, as well as private papers and photos from Scotty Moore, who was Elvis Presley’s guitarist. We have about 40 boxes of materials from Jane Scott, who covered rock and roll for the Cleveland Plain Dealer for a half century. Incredible stuff.

The best perk of my job is the people I get to meet. I often host our Author Series, which brings in writers of books on rock and roll. One recent guest was Donovan, the great Scottish singer/songwriter from the 1960s. I also give tours. It was a huge treat to accompany George Clinton, the godfather of funk, behind the scenes. He was really engaged by everything he saw—from original Jimi Hendrix lyrics to Beatles autographs to archival photos of Frankie Lymon. One of my biggest thrills was to show Chuck Berry around. Witnessing someone as iconic as him get excited about seeing a Muddy Waters poster makes you realize that all of us are music fans, even the rock stars.

I come from Carlinville, a small Illinois town near St. Louis. When I came to the University of Illinois, I knew I wanted a career in music—well, I wanted to be a rock musician, but I didn’t like my chances. So I majored in music history, figuring I would teach, and I got a job at the music library. Later, I was a graduate assistant at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music. I found it very exciting to work with archival materials. I stayed at Illinois to get my master’s in library and information science.

During school, I did play guitar in a rock band called The Bludgers. It was founded by two guys, one from Australia and the other from New Zealand. “Bludger” is down under for “moocher.” We played straight-ahead rock and roll, in the vein of artists like Tom Petty and the Jayhawks. Midwestern rock, but with a twang—that was from me—and a New Zealand accent, which didn’t come from me!