Record Store Clerk Turns Librarian and Takes a Deep Dive into the Strachwitz Archives

By Jessica Luther, Archives Intern

In high school, I had a lone career aspiration: to work at a record store (much to the chagrin of my guidance counselor who encouraged more ambitious career goals). My career dreams came true when, at 17, I landed my first record store job at Tower Records on Bay & Columbus in San Francisco. Over the next few years, I worked at several record shops while attending San Francisco State University to study art and photography. I first became familiar with Arhoolie Records during my record store years, and their varied releases broadened and enriched my musical appreciation and introduced me to a wide range of new genres and artists, such as Flaco Jimenez and Clifton Chenier.

Working at Streetlight Records in the 1990s. Photo by Marc Weinstein.

Years passed, I raised children and dabbled in photography, video production, and worked for musical instrument manufacturers. But my ambition to work with music collections never ceased. When I learned what archivists do, a lightbulb went off: this was a job that combined my passion for music, photography, writing, and film. In 2021, I enrolled in San Jose State University’s master’s in library and information science (MLIS) program and began studying for my degree with an archival focus. I began working at the public library last summer. While I attended the program, I learned that Arhoolie had transitioned from an independent record label to a non-profit foundation, and I was thrilled to be offered an internship at the Foundation for the Fall 2022 semester.

At the Foundation, I’m working with photographs and videos from the Chris Strachwitz Collection. I began the internship by reviewing the Strachwitz photo collection, which is housed in file folders organized by artist or event. I identify photographs with preservation concerns, flag fragile materials such as slides and negatives for eventual cold storage, label and number the folders, and write a brief description of unusual or significant photographs within each folder. The Strachwitz video collection is fully digitized and stored on a server. I’m responsible for reviewing the videos and creating metadata to describe each one. Once the collection is processed, I’ll describe it according to archival standards using DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard), the content standard for archival description, and then create a finding aid. This finding aid will allow users to discover the Strachwitz Collections.

It’s exciting to work hands-on with the Strachwitz materials and to witness the evolution of the organization as it changes from an independent record label to a functioning archival repository. The backroom of a record store is a very comfortable and familiar place to me, and when I began volunteering at the Foundation last spring, the space still felt very much like a record label. However, as the months have progressed, I have seen changes taking place: the cleaning of surfaces, the organizing of shelves, the labeling of folders. It’s delightful to witness this progress, and each time I visit I discover something new that’s been unearthed.

It’s difficult to describe the significant influence Chris Strachwitz’s lifelong work has had on music. To look at it through an It’s a Wonderful Life lens: what would our world be without Chris’s shared lifelong passions? He has introduced such an extraordinary wealth of music to our culture. His impact is immeasurable! Chris still works onsite from time to time, and it’s fantastic to observe the fervent focus he continues to bring to his work. There truly is a reason he is nicknamed “El Fanático!” What a legacy he has given us, what a gift his work has been, and what an honor it is to have the opportunity to work with his materials.

Spinning 45s at a recent event. Photo by Marty Marfin.

Jessica Luther is a candidate in the Master of Library and Information Science program at San Jose State University.

Here at the archive, we’ve begun a project to catalog Chris’s thousands of photographs. His datebook is a boon to our efforts, supplying crucial information on the dates and locations of photographs. Chris himself remains an extraordinary resource as we set about the long but rewarding task of describing, arranging, and sharing his collection. Stay tuned to the blog for updates on our progress and more stories from the archive.