Picture of Lou Reed in 2004 playing guitar

Lou Reed Archives Now At The New York Public Library

On what would have been Lou Reed’s 75th birthday, the New York Public Library (NYPL) announced that it had acquired the late singer’s personal archive of papers, photographs, and recordings. The archives, which are approximately 300 linear feet, promise to provide deep insight into a seminal figure in music.

The NYPL’s announcement was made with Lou Reed’s widow, artist Laurie Anderson. Describing her thought process in deciding where to archive Reed’s collection, Anderson told the New York Times that she wanted to make sure that the collection was not restricted to a select few who wore “white gloves.”

Picture of Laurie Anderson at podium speaking at 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony for Lou Reed.
Laurie Anderson at 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. [Image by Mike Coppola/Getty Images]

To prepare a preliminary inventory of Reed’s materials for the NYPL, Laurie Anderson worked with Don Fleming for the past three years. As a musician and producer in his own right, Fleming provided the historical knowledge needed to catalog the archives before they were sent to the NYPL.

With Fleming, Anderson researched other archives around the country before finally settling on the NYPL due to the institution’s ability to provide free access to the collection, as well as the potential for digitization, ensuring world-wide dissemination. As Anderson told Rolling Stone, Lou Reed did not leave clear specific guidelines for what to do with his archives in a will, so she used the generosity he exhibited in his life as the framework to approach how to handle what he left behind.

“He wasn’t a legacy guy,” Anderson claims. “He was ‘I want to get the new guitar, the new pedal. Throw that thing away.”

In its feature on the Lou Reed Archives, Rolling Stone described a treasure trove of rare cassette and video recordings that include early demos and concert footage. Also among the unearthed archives are a phone book featuring the likes of Allen Ginsburg and Brian Eno, reams of business documentation, and scribblings. According to NYPL Curator Jonathan Hiam, the boxes of ephemera in the Lou Reed archives are “the underpinnings of the art” that the musician created during his prolific career.

Prior to the announcement from the NYPL, the largest known collection of primary source material related to Lou Reed could be found in the Velvet Underground Archives held at Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Unlike Cornell’s collection, the bulk of the archives acquired by NYPL will focus primarily on Reed alone.

Picture of Lou Reed and Bono joined by spouses Laurie Anderson and Ali Hewson.
(L-R) Ali Hewson, Lou Reed, Bono, and Laurie Anderson. [Image by Brad Barket/Getty Images]

The Lou Reed Archives represent over five decades of the musician’s legacy. Born in Brooklyn, Reed forged his prolific musical career at New York University as a student. Following his graduation, he worked as a songwriter, eventually linking up with Welsh-born musician John Cale, with whom he formed the Velvet Underground in 1964.

It was with Velvet Underground that Lou Reed first came to prominence, but his career and impact quickly moved beyond that group as he became known as an experimental provocateur who pushed musical and sexual boundaries with ease.

As someone who was central to New York City’s experimental rock scene, Lou Reed held court with a diverse cadre of artists, musicians, and folklorists. His role in shaping the underground cultural scene in NYC in the 60s and 70s has taken on mythic stature, defining an element of cool that when distilled to its essence defines indie music and hipsterdom to this day.

Laurie Anderson’s agreement with the NYPL, the details of which were not disclosed in the announcement, ensures that the Lou Reed Archives will be open to the public with unrestricted access as soon as processing is completed at least a year from now.

In the meantime, for those who are anxious to get a glimpse of the collection, the NYPL will have materials from the Lou Reed Archives on display throughout much of the month of March at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and the Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center. The library has also planned several public programs dedicated to Reed’s music and poetry.

[Featured Image by Karl Walter/Getty Images]

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