The music man
By Bob Cunningham
Bill Schurk ’66 always has been a natural collector of things, starting when he was a young child in Cleveland.
“Books, records, postcards, magazines, National Geographics, maps, posters, buttons, bottle caps, matchbook covers … I collected all of that,” Schurk said. “But if you collect, why do you collect? You like to put them in order and that’s my forte, putting things in order so you can use them. It made me perfectly suited to work in a library.”
For the past 50 years, Schurk, 76, has left his mark on Bowling Green State University. Through his careful curation, donor management and subject expertise, BGSU’s Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives have come to reflect his expertise and knowledge.
Schurk, who retired at the end of December as the University Libraries sound recording archivist, has given generously with in-kind and cash gifts totaling more than $460,000 to help expand the archive’s focus. As a result, the archive is – in many people’s eyes – synonymous with him.
In recognition of his lifetime giving, the University’s Board of Trustees approved at the December board meeting naming the collection in his honor as the Bill Schurk Sound Archives .
“The archives exist because of his efforts, and Bowling Green State University has the reputation it has for protecting and championing popular music because he dedicated himself to it fully,” said Sara Bushong, dean of University Libraries. “He is recognized internationally for his expert knowledge and forethought. The collections will always be associated with him, and people will remember his name long after he is retired.”
The first thing you notice about Schurk is his T-shirts. He wears a different one every day, from Howdy Doody to Homer Simpson – pop culture icons from different eras.
The T-shirts are his visual trademark, but if you could peek inside his head, you’d see what else he is known for: He is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to pop culture, especially recorded music.
“The gift thing is ongoing,” he said. “I’ve donated ever since I started here in ’67. So, it was probably ’68 or ’69 when I started giving things off and on. I’ve got two boxes of very rare gifts that are going to the Browne Popular Culture Library. Most of the talk is about me is about the sound archives, but I’m the one who started the popular culture collection. I started the collection when Ray Browne came here and we wanted to get that library started.
“I knew popular culture. I lived popular culture. I have no idea how they even approached me. It just happened and I started the library and I was the head of the library for over a decade. At the same time, of course, I was in charge of the audio center, which is what we called it then when the collection first started.”
There was no concept of popular culture, Schurk said, because no one was thinking about popular culture at that time.
“When Ray came in ’67 at the same time I did, he was a professor in English and I guess he had in his mind that popular culture was going to be the thing he was going to champion. When he did, the whole concept of what we were doing in 1967 completely changed.”
Once BGSU introduced popular culture to the library, Schurk was in his element because he had been a “dyed in the wool record collector for many years.”
In the late ‘60s and early to mid-‘70s when stereo recordings became the norm in the industry, studios dumped their mono vinyl much to Schurk’s glee.
“They were dumping them in truckloads to the bargain department stores,” he said. “I would see all these cool records and I bought them for myself, and I’d think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if our library could have these in our collection?’
“Once we started collecting the popular recordings, I was so happy. I would fill up my shopping cart completely full with LPs. They were two for a dollar, 88 cents each, $1.19 – really cheap, but really cool records. I was in heaven there and heaven continued for my entire career.”
From the earliest days of the archives in 1967, Schurk was the most obvious and most qualified person to build an archive dedicated to music and sounds of everyday life, Bushong said.
“He took the trust invested in him and built the most significant such archive at an academic library in North America,” she said. “Now, in circles of archivists and scholars, when BGSU comes up in discussions about popular music, one name, Bill Schurk’s, comes to everyone’s mind.”
Originally, Schurk, who majored in English with a library science minor at BGSU, was going to be an engineer like his father, but that all changed when he caught the library bug.
In junior high, Schurk started as a page at the Cleveland Public Library, where he also served a stint as an intern and later as a shipping clerk at the institution’s library for the blind. He continued working at the Cleveland Public Library even when he was first hired as a student reference assistant at BGSU.
“During summers and spring break, I went back to Cleveland Public Library again,” he said. “I worked at two libraries the entire time I attended the University.”
Schurk practically has been working in libraries since 1953.
“That’s my life,” he said. “There’s nothing much else I can say because I was that in my private life too. I was a collector. I probably collected for 20 years before I came here on the faculty.”
Schurk is proud to have been the curator of sound recordings at BGSU for half a century.
“Popular culture rules on this campus,” he said. “That means, even though there are a lot of academics who pooh pooh it and there always have been, popular culture fits comfortably at this University.”
While naming the archives honors Schurk, it also honors those who have learned from him, donated to the collection and conducted research at BGSU.
“He is a figure who inspires strong loyalty from his external professional colleagues and donors, and putting his name on the archives will help the University to maintain and build upon those relationships,” Bushong said.
There also is a permanent display on the ground floor of the Jerome Library, featuring some of Schurk’s favorite items he’s donated over the years.
“There will be album covers and pictures of some really strange and odd records,” he said. “I don’t have to go far to find them – almost anything that’s an ooh and an aah. They’re all really neat, and they all tell a story.”
During his retirement, Schurk plans to spend time with his wife, Bonnie, his children and grandchildren. Of course, he’ll still collect records and visit his beloved library.
“I can’t not come back,” he said. “My wife understands my need to visit, but at the same time I want to spend time with her.”