A librarian’s many, many records
Brian Schottlaender’s life of a million cuts
SUNDAY, MAY 29, 2011 AT 9:30 P.M.
In his own words
You can see and hear Brian Schottlaender discussing his “vinyl obsession” here.
Brian Schottlaender’s Lonely Arts Club Band: Six Tracks on A Fading Theme
At 58, Brian Schottlaender is the very model of a modern major league librarian. He has an impressive title, “Audrey Geisel University Librarian,” and a massive task, overseeing all libraries on the UCSD campus. Last year, he won the American Library Association’s most prestigious prize, the Melvil Dewey Medal.
But he suffers from an incurable fever, one that compels him to chase albums by obscure industrial rock bands like Current 93 (“Christ and the Pale Queens Mighty in Sorrow”). This is an illness, one that may have begun with his childhood exposure to one of the most popular groups in history.
“My mother is British,” he explained, “so the Beatles were a big deal in our family.”
Today, in the Mission Hills house the librarian shares with his wife, book editor Sherri Schottlaender, the Fab Four are still a big deal. But so is tropical kitsch-Meister Martin Denny; an Anglo-Dutch experimental band, the Legendary Pink Spots; and industrial rockers Nurse With Wound. Floor to ceiling metal shelves line one wall of the Schottlaenders’ living room, bursting with 3,000 LPs. The librarian has many interests — globes, the writings of William S. Burroughs, comic books — but he is hooked on vinyl.
“For a true collector,” he said, “the collection is never finished.”
2. Here, There and Everywhere
In most homes, CDs and digital music have displaced pressed vinyl. Schottlaender, though, argues that these discs are making a comeback.
“The ‘young people,’” he said, wrapping the phrase in air quotes, “like vinyl. It’s kind of a retro thing.”
He may have a point. Around the world, devotees make pilgrimages to shops that fuel their passion. (In San Diego, stores include Lou’s and M-Theory.) Billboard reports that vinyl record sales climbed 14 percent between 2009 and 2010.
Yet, vinyl accounts for only 1 percent of all recorded music sales.
“We are dinosaurs,” said Eric Cyrus, secretary of the Vinyl Record Collectors Association, which had scheduled its 14th annual convention in Jamaica over Memorial Day weekend. More than 300 graying fans were expected to share music and, sadly, memories.
“Quite a few of us have died,” Cyrus said. “So we make it a memorial.”
3. In My Life
At 15, Schottlaender bought his first album: “Are You Experienced.” The Jimi Hendrix LP was a mature, savvy pick, but Brian was not your average teen. Born in Munich, where his father was an American working for Washington, Brian didn’t live in the States until he was 12. After a few years in Atlanta, the family moved to Dallas.
The boy loved classic rock. Increasingly, though, his taste ran toward more esoteric stuff: Captain Beefheart; the early Pink Floyd; Throbbing Gristle, a British group with a Dadaist edge; the Irish Gothic rock of the Virgin Prunes; the roughneck folk of John Fahey (“Blind Joe Death”).
As Schottlaender pursued his university studies from Germany, to the University of Texas, and on to Indiana University, he bought records at a four-album-a-week clip.
Whenever he relocated for a degree or a job, box after box was filled with treasures.
“The last time we moved,” he said, “somebody asked if I was a DJ.”
4. Tell Me Why
Vinyl-collecting librarians are not uncommon — one of Schottlaender’s colleagues at UCLA has 90,000 albums. This vocation and avocation are in sync.
Consider that, as university librarian, Schottlaender is responsible for 4.6 million printed books, 2.5 million digital volumes and nearly 100,000 recorded works. That last number includes 32,000 vinyl LPs, which reflect their time and place as surely as does the printed word.
“Albums do represent a form of technology that was prevalent for more than 50 years,” Schottlaender said during a videotaped interview posted by the American Library Association in April, during Preservation Week. “I think it is important that collections of examples of this technology be maintained for the historical record, the cultural record.”
When Schottlaender talks about vinyl, his eyes spark. You can glimpse the giddy teen within the scholarly man.
5. Getting Better
Fans insist that vinyl sounds better, fuller, richer than digital music or CDs.
“Warmer,” Schottlaender said.
“With a CD,” said Bram Dijkstra, professor emeritus of English at UCSD, “the sonority, the sound qualities, are often flat. Everything seems to be on the same level. With a well-recorded LP, you can close your eyes and you can literally point out that the trumpet player is in front, say, the drummer in back, that sort of thing.”
Vinyl, though, is easily chipped and scratched. Even new LPs sometimes have a background hiss or the occasional popping sound. And that’s why Schottlaender’s classical collection, all 2,000 works, are on CD.
“If there’s a little surface noise on Jimi Hendrix ‘Are You Experienced’ that’s OK. If there’s a little surface noise on Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, that’s not OK.”
6. A Hard Day’s Night
After a day in the stacks, Schottlaender enters his living room and selects two albums — the other night, he went from A (psychedelic British guitarist Kevin Ayers) to Z (Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention). A methodical sort, he intends to spend a few years listening to the entire collection, checking their condition.
His wife listens, too. She loves music but is leery about handling the albums.
“There’s a bit of ritual,” she noted.
Schottlaender slowly extracts the album from its mylar cover, then plucks the LP from the album.
Using an antistatic carbon fiber brush. he sweeps dust particles from the disc’s grooves.
The LP cradled between his hands, he places it on the turntable.
He lowers the stylus’ diamond tip onto the dark vinyl.
There’s a hiss. Then, the soundtrack of his life.