Rock (’n’ Roll) of Ages
Museum’s Archivist Preserves More Than MusicBy Tom Kertscher | Photo by Janet Macoska
Jennie Thomas M.L.S. ’00 hasn’t met every rock idol, but she’s come to know many of them through their personal belongings and writings.
Thomas is director of archives at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which broke ground 25 years ago in September and is the home of rock music’s most treasured artifacts. The collection of more than 30,000 objects ranges from Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster guitars to Michael Jackson’s sequined white glove—and Thomas has played a central role in its curation and preservation.
“When you get to describe the collection that has Tom Waits’ handwritten lyrics for ‘Blue Valentine,’ that’s a pretty exciting thing,” says Thomas, a devoted Waits fan.
A classically trained singer, Thomas earned her bachelor’s at St. Mary’s College, then worked in a bookstore and music store before pursuing her master’s degree in library science at Maryland. Here, she worked at the University Libraries' Special Collections in Performing Arts, which she called crucial training.
She spent nine years working with United Methodist Church archives at Albion College in Michigan before landing a job in 2009 as an archivist at the Hall of Fame, which attracted more than a half-million visitors last year.
Now she holds the No. 2 role at the hall’s library, located two miles from the museum and open to the public by appointment. There, Thomas supervises the preservation of one-of-a-kind documents, photographs, videos, master tapes, bootleg recordings—anything that isn’t sold commercially and that isn’t clothing or musical instruments. She also manages digitization projects, preserving rock history in yet another way.
“You have to have a real sense for detail and context and the history of the materials that you’re dealing with,” Thomas says. “When you’re delving into an archival collection, you never know what you’re going to find, so it becomes a little bit of a treasure hunt.”
Thomas made one of her most memorable discoveries while organizing a collection of items from 1950s singer Eddie Cochran, who died at 21 in a car crash. She was struck by the poignancy of two telegrams sent to his family about the accident.
“I was just crying by the time I got through these, because it was just such an unexpected find,” she says.
Leave a Reply
* indicates a required field