Teresa Brinati 2016-05-12 11:59:39
Music has opened a lot of doors for Peter Balestrieri, and one of those doors led to the archives field. The curator of Science Fiction and Popular Culture Collections in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries took a long and winding road to get there. For more than a decade, Balestrieri played saxophone for the punk rock band Violent Femmes, earning a Gold Record in 1983 for the band’s self-titled album, Violent Femmes. He toured with the band through the 1980s and early ’90s, jamming in front of more than 50,000 screaming fans at Riot Fest, Lollapalooza, Summerfest in Milwaukee, and Navy Pier in Chicago. He’s riffed in places like Albert Hall in London, the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, and the Peppermint Lounge in New York City. “There’s no venue of any size that you can name that we haven’t played,” Balestrieri noted. “There’s a feeling that you’re part of something really big. The joy of it is having the best seat in the house, being surrounded by sound and by the people who are making it.” In the pecking order of cool careers, if rock star is pitch perfect, then where is archivist on the scale? And how does one go from performing on a stage to presenting at SAA’s Archives 2015 conference in Cleveland, which Balestrieri did? Prelude “I first worked in libraries when I was 18,” the burly and bespectacled Balestrieri admitted. Although there now is more salt than pepper in his beard, he’s a youthful 63. Before libraries, there was music. He grew up in Milwaukee, a second generation Italian American whose grandparents on both sides of the family hailed from Sicily. When he was ten years old he took saxophone lessons for six months then dropped it. He didn’t pick up the instrument again until his sophomore year in high school and by senior year he was improvising in a “noise” band. Then Balestrieri got another gig—not in music but at a library. “I started in circulation and shelving at Milwaukee Public Library in 1972 and it was lots of fun,” Balestrieri said. He worked there for two years, did some other things, then returned to the library and got a job in gifts and donations. For the first time he was working with older materials in restricted areas. “There’s nothing like being behind-the-scenes and seeing how things work,” he added. Dead Mouse Moment That’s also when Balestrieri experienced his first “dead mouse moment,” which he describes as similar to how a cat will lay a dead mouse at your feet to show you what a great hunter they are. “In library and archives, it’s the box of materials you’re processing in which you discover something special,” Balestrieri explained. For Balestrieri that moment was when he found a first edition of Stendahl’s 1830 novel, Le Rouge et Le Noir, in a box of reprint house books. “That’s when I began to love that process of finding great stuff and sharing that discovery with somebody,” Balestrieri added. Music and Other Interludes Music intervened and the dead mouse moments waned. He was dating a woman whose brother-in-law had a band that was looking for a saxophonist. “I told them I really can’t play, and they said, 'That’s okay, it’s a punk band.'” So Balestrieri joined them. It was 1978 and punk was all the rage. A few years later he started sitting in on music sessions with another band—the Violent Femmes—then toured fulltime and recorded with the group from 1983 through 1991. Building an audience was a gradual process. The Violent Femmes played small gigs that eventually grew into stadiums as their music gained in popularity. Concert goers take note: “As a musician you can only relate to the people in front of the stage,” Balestrieri pointed out. “For me it was never about the size of the audience anyway, but rather the music and the people you are playing with. It’s impossibly exciting to be at the center of something amazing.” Amazing as it was, in 1991 Balestrieri was ready for a change. There was lots of down time for a saxophonist during performances, and the touring, bus rides, and hotels had become monotonous. Nontraditional Student In his forties, Balestrieri enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, earning a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing, American literature, and American humor in 1995. He married Claire Fox, a professor in the Spanish and Portuguese Department at Stanford University, and moved to California. His first year there he worked in circulation at Stanford’s Cecil H. Green Library, then took a position with Intuit Software as a liaison between the product group and beta testers answering email. He put his saxophone in its case and didn’t take it out again for seven years. Balestrieri returned to the Midwest in 2001 when his wife became professor of English at the University of Iowa. He became a househusband and when the younger of their two sons was in kindergarten in 2009, Balestrieri applied to graduate school at the tender age of 57. He was thrilled to be accepted into the University of Iowa’s School of Library and Information Science, earning an MA in 2012. “I think the music background helped—it was fun for them to have an aging punk rocker in the program,” Balestrieri quipped. He took all of the requisite classes, but it was the course in special collections, taught by Greg Prickman who Balestrieri refers to as his mentor, that hit a high note. “The first time Greg took our class to see the locked collections, I knew immediately what I wanted to do.” Balestrieri said. He saw researchers being connected to the collections by librarians and archivists and it was like a reprise of his previous career. “It was the same as the music experience, except instead of a stage, it’s a restricted area, and instead of music, it’s these historical materials, and I’m in-the-know behind-the-scenes helping to make connections—and that’s the draw!” enthused Balestrieri. The Gig The first collection he processed as a student worker in Iowa’s Special Collections and University Archives was science fiction magazines that filled 60 archives boxes and he created the finding aid. With a strong personal interest in science fiction literature, he felt like he had scored a golden gig. He was hired temporary full-time during his final semester, which is when he began processing the James L. “Rusty” Hevelin Collection of Pulps, Fanzines, and Science Fiction Books. He graduated in December 2012. Two years later he was offered a permanent position in the Main Library. Balestrieri’s official title is curator of Science Fiction and Popular Culture Collections. He is quick to point out that because of his educational background he does not consider himself an archivist. “The head of university archives is David McCartney and he is an archivist,” Balestrieri added. “But I love archives.” The sci-fi fanzines are of particular interest to Balestrieri and there are 10,000 in the collection, which is currently being digitized. These fanzines first appeared in the 1930s and are amateur publications made by individuals or groups that discuss politics, films, books, and other matters public and personal. They were written for a limited audience and distributed via personal connections and gatherings of sci-fi fans. The proximity to these materials and what they represent in terms of unstudied documentation of the social history and popular culture of the twentieth century makes Balestrieri giddy with excitement. “We exist to provide the primary source materials that lead to new knowledge,” he said. “What I do as a curator is connect dots—the biggest part of my job is forging connections between the collections and faculty, students, and researchers.” Encore The dead mice moments have returned, like when Balestrieri discovered a fanzine addressed to a teenaged Ray Bradbury, who would go on to write such groundbreaking works as Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man. And he has picked up the saxophone again. The music scene in Iowa City is lively. He plays in a couple of bands and performs solo. “I still think of myself as an artist,” Balestrieri stated. “Librarians and especially archivists are artists—something inside them thinks like artists, reacts like artists—but they’re not trained that way. We need to think of ourselves as artists and creators, rather than as anything passive. The work that is involved, whether it’s processing, preserving, or making a collection accessible, there’s nothing passive about it. It’s all activity that involves choices. That’s what artists do.” Music is still opening doors and he now uses the fanfare to draw attention to special collections. Balestrieri rocks. And he believes archivists do, too.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.