Rock's Backpages Press Room Rock's Backpages
the online library of pop writing

Press Room: Review

Library Journal

Library Journal

CONTENT Rock’s Backpages (RBP) holds nearly 25,000 articles about rock—and more—from both the musical and mainstream presses published from 1960 to the present. Material includes feature articles, reviews, interviews, and more than 400 audio files. The work of nearly 600 music writers is represented here, and approximately 5,000 artists are covered in its “pages.” Every week 50 new articles and one new audio interview are added to the collection every week. Subscribers receive weekly updates describing new content, and there is some free material on the site, as well.

USABILITY A description of RBP’s current front page provides an idea of the smorgasbord for the music lover that’s available here. At the screen top users are invited to enter the Library, where they can do a quick search or browse articles by artist, writer, subject, or publication. A single click leads to advanced search mode, which offers the option to do a free text search limited by date, subject/genre, writer, publication, piece type, or format and then sort your results by relevance or date. Back to the front page: beneath the invite into the Library is a link to an alphabetical list of the free articles (the page says it’s “a limited selection,” but I gave up trying to count after 60 and I was still in the Bs), followed by an “Almost Famous” feature (in this case highlighting “Definitive pieces from the quintessential style mag” The Face), followed by a syndication statement that RBP “makes available articles from the site for use by publishers, for either online or offline use.” The company also will attempt to locate content that’s not on the site if you tell them the artist or genre in which you’re interested.

The next column at right features a Quick Search box followed by links to new content for subscribers, and a box for the Magazine Archive where you can order scans and photocopies from the archives. The third column over contains a box linking into the audio interviews, followed by a list of 54 “Genre Quicklinks” such as Americana/Alt. Country; Britpop; Doo Wop and Vocal Groups; Folk and Folk-Rock; Girl Groups; Gospel; Latin; Tropicalia, etc.; Punk and Hardcore; Soul; Funk and R&B; and World Music. At far screen right are ads for material that will likely be of interest to RBP users.

By the time I got through my first scan of the resource, I knew I was going to be looking at it for a long time. Wanting to see just how wide the coverage was, I did a series of quick searches with these results: Captain Beefheart, 70 articles; the McGarrigles, 19; Nick Cave, 250; Gram ­Parsons, 293; Flying Burrito Brothers, 99; and yet Pink Martini, just one article—a mention in an interview with Van Dyke Parks; Sandy Denny, 105; Squirrel Nut Zippers, four; ­Ladysmith Black Mambazo, 13; ­and Celia Cruz (nine articles). The coverage here is pretty wide.

Next I tried an Advanced Search, looking for Elvis’s gospel music. Entering “Elvis Presley” as search text and limiting subject/genre to gospel, I found ten articles, but when I looked at each of them I discovered that only one, a review by Terry Staunton for the Record Collector in October 2005, “He Touched Me—The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley,” was actually about the artist’s gospel music. In all nine other articles there were one or two mentions of or references to Elvis, but nothing substantial.

So I went back into advanced search and looked for interviews (as “Piece Type”) of the Byrds (“Search Text”) and retrieved 219 articles. I realized that this result included any mention of the Byrds in any interview, so I cut the list down to only those interviews of members of the Byrds by clicking the Byrds link in the Artist category at screen right—then I got what I was really looking for. When I retried the Elvis/gospel search I’d done before I couldn’t narrow the articles any more, as Elvis wasn’t listed as the featured Artist for any of the articles (and that was the tip-off that most of those articles weren’t about him).

An Advanced Search link underneath the Quick Search box right up front and center on the main page would be helpful. Right now the link to Advanced Search is buried at the bottom of the far left column on the main page, and the alternative to reach it is to locate it amidst the very busy Library page (and that’s a click in from the main page). Serious researchers will need this.

After trying a number of different ways of getting at the content in this database, two methods stood out: doing a quick search from the main page, getting the results, then clicking a facet link (artist, writer, subject/genre, etc.) at screen right to narrow the results down to substantial material about the search subject; or simply browsing around the main page (the “new for RBP subscribers box” held some great reviews) and moseying through the lists of artists, writers, subjects, and publications. I serendipitously came across a great July 1989 audio interview of Etta James by Barney Hoskyns (now editor of RBP)this way, as well as a 2007 retrospective by Holly George-Warren titled “Bobbie Gentry: Mystery Girl,” which quotes Camille Paglia. Camille Paglia? She’s in here. I’m betting other music lovers will enjoy wandering through this rich and diverse content in a similar way.

PRICING Prices for 2014–15 for unlimited access, including remote, range from $932 to $24,679 depending on type of institution, FTE, and/or population served. This includes a consortial discount of 20 percent.

VERDICT RBP is a treasure trove of musical primary source material, and overall the content is served up well, in multiple modes for searching and browsing. I even enjoyed the unexpectedness of having immediate access on the front page to a piece on the Doobie Brothers next to a review of a Siouxsie & the Banshees’s performance. RBP is an essential acquisition for large public and academic libraries serving serious students of a wide range of music, from blues and country to jazz, reggae, and, of course, rock and roll.

back to Press Room