Visiting the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection and Archive

By alchomet

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“He just went right over to that picture of him and Diane and smiled.” Eileen Chapman, Associate Director of the Arts at Monmouth University, explained to me what it was like when Bruce Springsteen himself came to visit the archive of his fan materials at the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection at Monmouth University. “He mostly wanted to just look around, but he didn’t request anything.” Still, she seemed pleased with the memory. “I can’t believe I forgot to ask him to sign the guest book!”  Eileen acts as director of the archive, assisted by Alana, a social work student at Monmouth. Together with another student assistant, they have tackled the work of tracking, arranging, and housing the collection, corresponding with patrons, providing reference, and serving the reading room.

There are no professional archivists on the staff, and none have ever worked there, but the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection is not a typical archive in a lot of ways. Most notably, the collection has nothing to do with Monmouth University’s library system, although it is housed on the Monmouth campus–the collection is not in the library, the librarians do not work on it, and the library system, for now, is not in the process of acquiring it. The archive is a single house located on Monmouth’s campus across the street from the student center, and adjacent to the performing arts building. It still looks a lot like a house–until the Springsteen collection moved in, it had been a living space for Monmouth students.

Eileen explained that the collection had been kept at the Asbury Park Public Library until 2011, when she suggested that the Friends of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection (the group of fans who support and act as a kind of Board of Directors for the collection) move it to Monmouth University, only a few miles north of Asbury Park. She said that the public library really didn’t have space to house the quickly-growing collection, nor did they especially have the tools to provide access to its wide range of audio-visual formats. Various parts of the collection were being in stored closets and other strange spaces in the library, she explained, and library staff and directors began to disagree with the Friends over the treatment of the collection. Eileen was eventually able to convince Monmouth to take it on, although it took years. She told me that it had been a hard sell to the University to agree to house the collection–the library director did not agree that it would be relevant to the school’s library, and it remains apart from it today. The archive house only gets a few visitors a week–maybe 4 or 5, according to Eileen, and none of the University faculty have incorporated the collection into their coursework.

There are other subtle downsides to the archive’s move: unlike the public library, the house is open from 9 AM to 5 PM on weekdays only, rendering it inaccessible to most with a full time job. Its location–set back from an arterial street of the campus–is not exactly easy to find, even with a GPS. I had in fact taken a cab from a New Jersey transit station in order to get there, but then had to wander a bit before I saw the little unmarked house. Further, moving it even a little way outside Asbury Park makes it a harder stop for Springsteen tourists to make (although all visitors need to make an appointment with Eileen before coming in).

The archive house still retains some of the cozy feeling of a home, although much of the actual living spaces are occupied by steel shelving and Hollinger boxes, housing around 20,000 items of Springsteen fan material. The front living room of the house operates as the collection’s reading room. There is a large circular table for researchers to review material, and a reference desk across from the front door. There is a TV equipped with VHS and DVD players, as well as stereo equipment for playing records, CDs and cassettes. The kitchen has a few PCs, a microfilm reader, a flatbed scanner, a copy machine, and some arranging space on the counters. The rest of the house is the collection: the downstairs bedroom-like space holds newspapers and printed out internet-published articles, while bedroom spaces upstairs house academic papers, A/V materials, fan ‘zines, printed books, posters, t-shirts, and more. Decorating the living/reading room are beautiful, rare photos by Barry Schiener, a rock photographer, of Bruce in the ’70s and ’80s.

I love the idea of the archive house. Springsteen himself writes frequently of houses in his songs–the bedroom as personal space, the threshold, the porch, the yard, all hold immense weight in the universe of his lyrics. Only cars get more airplay in his lyrics than houses. It should go without saying, too, that his work glorifies the lives of working class Americans perhaps better than any other artist’s does–what better space to honor that vision than a simple home? Still, the collection might be even slightly more accessible if there were some signage by the road.

Eileen spends most of her time at the University working at the arts center, so when I visited on a Friday in November, a student assistant, Alana, worked with me. She has been working at the collection for four years, and is now in the middle of getting her Masters degree in social work from Monmouth. She seemed excited that I was studying to be an archivist, but hadn’t decided to go that route herself, although she loves working with the Springsteen collection; for one, Monmouth doesn’t offer a library or archives program.

Unfortunately, the collection barely has an online presence. The archive’s site has inventories of the collection by format, but no functioning OPAC (it remains un-integrated into the University library’s OPAC). Alana uses an excel spreadsheet to manage the archive’s inventory. For now, however, the collection is small enough that with some assistance, it’s not too difficult to assess and retrieve items of interest. When I requested to browse some of the ‘zines, Alana seemed unsurprised, and brought down a few boxes that she knew were popular. I mentioned that I was looking for a ‘zine a friend had made, and she worked with me in the inventory to find it, although there were no author names associated with ‘zine titles. My friend’s ‘zine (probably) wasn’t there–I should mention that almost all of the material in the collection has been donated.

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While there are a myriad of examples I could make of what professional archivists would do differently in the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection, there’s a whole lot that they get right. Would a University library even be the appropriate space to house the fan collections of the man who sings, “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby/than we ever learned in school”? Indeed, professionals are trained to provide better far better access to materials like these, and I am dreaming of the day that the collection gets a detailed online catalog, but absorption into a more sterile academic environment would likely mean losing the comfortable feeling of the archive house. It was a pleasure to talk to Eileen and Alana (Alana and I talked a lot, actually), and our feeling of camradarie was facilitated by the homey environment. It’s harder to just hang out with librarians in a library or archive, not in the least because of . In this sense, I think Alana and Eileen have beaten the burnout blues that plague a lot of University librarians. I felt that I could walk away knowing that the archive was conceived of and run with the rabid love of fans–this seems especially important given Springsteen’s powerful interpretations of alienated work in America.

When it was time to close up, Alana gave me a ride back to the train station (the archive house is located about 2 miles from the Long Branch New Jersey Transit stop on the Shoreline route). I had suggested that I could walk, but she seemed to expect that she would drive me, without us talking about it first. She said she frequently drove visitors to and from the collection. We drove past her old dorms on the way and she pointed them out–brick and square and overlooking the Jersey shore, but we were listening to pop radio in her car, and not The Boss. She assured me that she did indeed love Bruce, but, you know, some of her friends were bigger fans.

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