You Work Where? Combining a love of music with some great LIS skills at an awesome workplace

By Caitlin Williams, Ph.D.

Caitlin Williams

If I were to ask you to name your five favorite rock performers of all time, I bet it wouldn’t take you long to come up with your list.  Even for those of us who are now classical music enthusiasts, it’s still pretty easy to remember back to the rock singers, the lyrics, or the special moments in our past that we still link to a particular song.  

Music is that powerful.  It moves us and often makes a lasting impression on our lives.  So, if you are like most of us and can still remember a particular concert you attended, or a favorite album or CD you purchased, then imagine what it would be like to access the original handwritten lyrics of your favorite performers.  Or, peruse the correspondence of a musician that had a profound impact on you ten or twenty years ago.  Or go on a “treasure hunt” to find all the materials you could about one of your favorite rock stars.

These activities I’ve just mentioned?  They’re all in a day’s work for Director of Archives, Jennie Thomas and Librarian, Laura Maidens, whose place of employment is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives.  

I had the privilege of interviewing Jennie and Laura at the Rock Hall Library in Cleveland, Ohio recently. The interview, itself, was fantastic, and I also have to mention that the behind-the-scenes tour of the archives that Jennie gave me afterward was also pretty amazing.

If you’re wondering what kind of work might challenge your librarianship skills and take you outside the more traditional library setting, then the Rock Hall of Fame Library, with its famous museum and exquisitely maintained archives, offers a great example.

According to its website, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame threw open its doors on September 2, 1995, and since then it has welcomed more than 10 million visitors from around the globe.  

Here’s a quick snapshot of the Rock Hall Library & Archives statistics:

  • Archival collections available for research: 481
  • Audio recordings: approx. 18500 (commercial and archival)
  • Video recordings: approx. 5200 (includes commercial and archival)
  • Books: Over 8,000
  • Periodical titles: 1950
  • Theses/Dissertations: 500

So, what types of skills does it take to work in such a fascinating place?  I asked the two women that question, along with several others about how they came to do the work they do each day.  Here’s what they had to say:

CW: Tell us about your academic backgrounds and what you both did prior to coming to the Rock Hall Library.

Jennie Thomas

Jennie:  My undergrad degree is in Music Performance (classically trained musician).  I have a MLS with a specialty in Archives, Records and Information Management from U of MD, College Park, and I also have a second Master’s degree (MA) in the Humanities.  

While I was in grad school I worked at the National Public Broadcasting Archives, Special Collections in the Performing Arts on campus as well as the Performing Arts Library on the circulation desk and the U of MD conservation lab.  I also worked at the U of MD College library, where I did electronic reserves.  So, I got a pretty wide range of experiences while I was there, not just in archival processing but also in conservation and preservation.    

So, again, I was just trying to get a really wide experience so I could figure out exactly what I wanted to do.  From there, once I graduated I got a job at Albion College as their first professional archivist.  It was very cool because I was the only person in all of Special Collections. Essentially, I was Special Collections.  I oversaw their rare books and manuscripts, their college archives, and the United Methodist Church West Michigan Conference archives which was housed at Albion. While there, I started the college’s first Records Management Program.  I was also a regular librarian on staff working the Reference Desk and serving as the liaison for the Art, Music and Math Departments.   

Again, I got a really diverse experience and was able to jump-start their program by getting all the policies, procedures, workflows and forms in place to operate an Archives efficiently so operations could be continued after I left.  I was there for 9 years.

CW:  How did you find out about this job?  Did you see it advertised?

Jennie:  I first saw the Director of Library & Archives position, but didn’t think I was ready for that. Then, six months later I saw the archivist position posted and I applied for that. That was right up my alley.  So, I came in as the archivist in 2009.

Laura Maidens

Laura Maidens, Librarian at the Rock Hall Library, is just two weeks into her new position, though she also got great work experience when she was here five years ago.  Here’s her background and what she has been able to bring to her current position:  

Laura:  I did my undergraduate degree through Kent State University with a BA in English, and got my MLIS from Kent State, as well.  

Prior to joining the Rock Hall Library in my current position, I was working as Librarian (Cataloger) at the Akron-summit County Public Library, where I cataloged mostly DVDs but also books, magazines, government documents, DCs, books on CD, and any other format as-needed.  I also continue to serve as Treasurer on the Northern Ohio Technical Services Librarians Board.

CW:  Laura, you mentioned you were here five years ago.  What was your position then?

Laura:  I started as a volunteer and then intern at the Rock Hall Library through Kent State University.  Then I was hired immediately after graduation as Project Cataloger, which was a position that was planned to last only six months and ended up continuing for almost two years.

CW:  What is the day-to-day work like for both of you?

Jennie:  Currently, we get in a lot of donations, but what we get in, weekly at this point, are transfers of materials from the Museum.  They still have a lot of archival materials in their vault that they’ve been slowly transferring to us.  My days recently have been a mix of training our new staff on the Reading Room Desk, making sure everyone is up-to-speed on what’s going on in the Reading Room and what our polices and procedure are, and how to use the forms, etc.

I write a lot of grants. I just finished one for the Ohio History Fund, and now I’m writing one for the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC) to process our backlog collections.  I’m also processing an archival collection that was created by Joan Baez’s manager in the sixties.  So, there’s a lot of material in there about her and the nonviolence movement, her husband, and his role in draft dodging – all really fascinating.  It’s called the Manny Greenhill Collection on Joan Baez, and it includes correspondence, business records, financials, posters, pamphlets, flyers used to promote concerts, and photographs.

I work with donors – many times people will contact us because they have things they think might be useful for our collections.  I’ll work with them to see if it is something that fits into our Collecting Plan.  

I oversee three archivists and an archives assistant.  I work with pretty much every researcher that comes in, to do the reference interview, to help them figure out what materials they want to have pulled while they’re here.  A little bit of everything!

Laura:  The majority of my time is spent cataloging materials: books, DVDs, CDs, serials, dissertations, possibly a website here and there – electronic resources, any format that we have.  I also do Public Services work, as well.  Often, I’m on the desk in the Reading Room supporting Jennie.

I also work on collection development, outreach, reference instruction – working on collection development of current inductees, people who have been nominated in the past…materials pertaining to local music venues and artists and items that support the archival collection.  In terms of outreach, we hold many events – so far, we have several planned for September and October.  We’ll be bringing in classes to do reference instruction – for K through 8, the local high schools and local colleges, as well.  

CW: Let me ask you both: what’s the favorite part of your work?

Jennie:  Processing is definitely my favorite part.  I prefer collections like the one I’m working on now, which is a mix of some personal things and business records.  Many collections we get in are really a mix of both, so you get a sense of, not only the person’s career, but also who they were as a person.

Laura:  I still love to catalog.  I really love getting my hands on the materials. It’s the aspect of librarianship that I’m most familiar with. But I will say that being a cataloger – strictly a cataloger –  for 4 ½ years, I need these other things to focus on, too.  I’m a pretty social person. A lot of catalogers are not, necessarily, so this position is really a perfect blend of all the things I wanted to have my hands in –in one position.

CW:  It’s clear you’re both really involved in your work.  So, here’s another question that should put a smile on your faces:  What’s the coolest part about working here?

Jennie:  I really like the interconnectedness of the collections.  A lot of our initial collections are focused on the music business, donated by record executives and record labels. Looking across all of them you really can see how rock and roll developed, how the music business developed, how they were playing off each other, and you get a sense of what it was like starting out with this new thing: rock music.  It’s also very cool to get to go to the Induction Ceremony for free when it’s in Cleveland.  

Laura:  I’m a cataloger by experience, largely.  I like being surrounded by materials to catalog that are my favorite kinds of materials so I gain a little information from any piece I pick up to catalog, and that’s always been the most exciting part for me.  

I think that the subject matter is fascinating.  I’ve always been interested in rock music. So, when I did my cataloging position here (5 years ago), what we did to get started was to just work by inductee.  So, for example, we were asked to pick our favorite inductee and catalog as many materials as we could find on them (DVDs, CDs, Bios).

CW:  You both have mentioned how much of your work revolves around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, so I have to ask: Which are your favorites?

Jennie: Tom Waits, followed closely by Elvis Costello and Nick Cave.  

Laura:  I don’t think that I could pick a favorite.  But the first ones I worked on were The Clash, Van Halen, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and Black Sabbath.

CW:  Did either of you ever imagine that you would be working at the Rock Hall Library?

Jennie:  I didn’t, because at the time I was looking to get a professional position a lot of the music librarian or music archivist positions required a second Master’s in music, which I don’t have and which I didn’t really have the desire to go for.  So, I didn’t really think it would ever be possible to work in a music archives or library.  Plus, I was classically trained, so I never really thought outside of that in terms of what kind of music I’d really want to deal with.  

CW: I’m curious, Jennie, being classically trained, what did friends and family say when you told them you were going to the Rock Hall Library?

Jennie:  I think they were actually more excited about that than anything I’d ever done before! (Laura concurred on this point!)

CW: Laura, how about for you:

Laura:  No, I never would have expected to be working for a museum. I really started out with the goal of being a teen librarian when I went to get my MLIS and then I ended up really enjoying cataloging and I ended up doing a graduate student assistantship in cataloging, which is what actually got me into the Rock Hall Library.  I went to a Career Fair, met Andy Leach (Senior Director of Library and Archives) and Jennie.  I begged them to let me intern here, even though they didn’t have room for a cataloger yet, and we came up with a plan for my internship that included collection development and policy research and proposal.   

I think if you find something that speaks to you in some sort of way, even if it was never a part of your plan, explore it a little bit, go a little further with it and see if it works.  That student assistantship at Kent State gave me some basic core knowledge of cataloging, but I learned so much about cataloging when I was here [5 years ago] as a Project Cataloger because it was all that I was doing and it prepared me so well to go back and work in public libraries.

CW:  What would you tell new grads in MLIS, or students still in school?

Jennie:  Remember that you’re bringing your whole self to whatever it is that you end up doing and you may have a combination of skills that, in a completely unexpected way, makes you a good fit for a job that you might not have thought that you could ever do.  You shouldn’t sell yourself short.  A lot of times I hear people say that ‘they want more years of experience than I have’ or ‘they want something else’ and I stop them and say ‘wait, didn’t you do this at your former job, doesn’t that fit into what this new place is looking for?’  There are lots of different ways to interpret what they’re looking for and a lot of things you can bring to the table.  Speaking of her own experience, Jennie noted that “no one who just graduated from Library School should have really been able to start a college archives from scratch but my boss had that kind of confidence in me so he took that chance.

Laura:  Don’t ever be afraid to talk to somebody who is doing what you want to do someday, or is working somewhere in a place similar to where you’d like to be working because you can get so many great ideas.  Networking is really important and talking to people who are already doing what you want to do someday.  They’re going to want to talk to you, too.

Get as much hands-on experience as you can: whether it’s doing a graduate assistantship, or interning, or volunteering, and those sorts of things.  This involvement will get you the experience… maybe you won’t use it right away but you will learn more about the sort of work people are doing and gain knowledge that might apply to a project or a position later on in your career.

Final notes from Caitlin:

Interviewing Jennie and Laura was a delight!  I hope you enjoyed reading it.  I’ve included some final thoughts (below) regarding Jennie and Laura’s career development process.  Consider how their actions and suggestions might guide you on your own career journey

Did you notice, as you read through their backgrounds, that neither woman set out to work where they do currently?  And that neither is engaging in the type of work they first imagined they’d be doing?  Both women took some zigs and zags in their careers before taking on their current roles (and that is so true of today’s career trajectories, where career moves aren’t often represented by linear, straight paths, but more likely by a series of opportunities that build on one another).  

What was most impressive to me, listening to them talk with such passion about their work, was the variety of tasks they are involved in, and the commitment they bring to their positions.  Clearly, they understand that their work makes a difference, and they are both eager to bring their best to everything they do.

What is also true about Jennie and Laura is that both women were willing to explore new opportunities, push themselves to take on new challenges, and, in the process, expand their options for employment and learn more about themselves as they progressed.

If you’d like more information on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives, visit their website at:   

You can also learn more about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, itself at: