They've Got the Best Pop Library Ever, but These Guys Don't Try to Break Records

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Future shock. The 21st century is at its ebb as an archaeologist enters the cobwebbed chamber in lower Manhattan, flicks his flashlight beam through the dust-laden air and gasps in amazement at what he sees: the most massive collection of late-20th-century pop-music recordings ever assembled. It may be difficult to fathom, even then, why anyone would have bothered to assemble an inventory vast enough to include not only Jimmy Swaggart's Greatest Hits and a Japanese LP by the Toshiba Singing Angels, but also every punk, rap, reggae, heavy metal, rockabilly, soul and salsa LP that he could lay his hands on. The record, so to speak, will show that the two men responsible were, in fact, trained scholars with an ear to posterity.

The idea for this unique musical archive first occurred to David Wheeler four years ago while he was wondering what to do with his new degree in library science from Columbia University. "The last thing I wanted to do was work in a library," says the soft-spoken Wheeler, 31. "I started thinking, 'Gee, I wish I was enormously wealthy so I could have the world's greatest record collection.' " He already had 10,000 records, but his ambition was considerably larger: He wanted a copy of every pop disc ever pressed. The man needed help.

Luckily, Bob George, 38, was there to provide it. He had come to New York from the University of Michigan to study sculpture and had become a small-time record producer, part-time deejay and author of a huge, 736-page discography of New Wave music. Wheeler was astonished by the amount of material George had assembled for the book, and he was also impressed by George's 35,000 LPs. The pair decided to join forces, as well as collections, to create the ARChive of Contemporary Music.

The library, located largely in a $148-a-month rented loft, now includes more than 210,000 records, thanks to contributions from private collectors, interested rock stars (Mick Jagger and David Byrne among them) and more than 400 recording companies. Dedicated to preserving "all forms of popular music since 1950," Wheeler and George reject nothing. They collect African juju music, Cajun zydeco, country swing, soft rock, vintage Patti Page and the latest LP from Vomit Launch. "We can't be worried about quality, whatsoever," says George. "If we just do our job in an orderly fashion, people will look back and say, 'Oh my God, where did you ever get this?' "

Apparently from almost everywhere. In the archive's downtown loft, five volunteer interns and a paid assistant help George catalog arcane treasures like the "Hula Hoop Polka" and love songs sung by Telly Savalas. Wheeler, meanwhile, spends his time finding financial backers for the nonprofit venture. With donations running at about $100,000 a year, the archive's founders each draw meager $250-a-week paychecks. "That's less than a bad secretary," jokes George, who lives in a cramped, 8-foot by 10-foot room behind the loft. Wheeler shares a two-bedroom East Village apartment and uses part of his space there to store an additional 6,000 LPs.

For now, the collection is open only to scholars and researchers, though the partners plan to welcome the public as soon as they find more space. "Magazines use us for fact checking; record labels use us for hunting down the sources for materials that they're re-releasing," says George. Director Martin Scorsese has used them as well, calling from Morocco while he was scoring The Last Temptation of Christ. And Tina Turner got in touch two years ago, seeking copies of her own early LPs that she had lost. "We've found that's true with a lot of musicians," says Wheeler. "If we have doubles, we'll try to make sure they get one."

These days, though, George and Wheeler worry more about the gaps in their own collection, which they fill however they can. "A friend of ours collects Dylan bootlegs, and he has 200 of them," notes George. "He won't give them to us, but he'll will them to us. So our idea is to have something like an organ donor's card that says, 'Send my records to the archives.' "

—By Ken Gross, with Victoria Balfour in New York

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