The Punk Rock Life of a Rare Book Librarian

Talking to trained organist, original punk, studied librarian, and self-taught archivist Marvin J. Taylor of NYU's Fales Library & Special Collection.

In the director’s office at NYU Fales Library, I look from the splayed contents of David Wojnarowicz’s fabled Magic Box—beads, a snake, a little snowman, “a barking dog who doesn’t bark anymore,” a buddha, a monkey skull painted Klein Blue—to Marvin J Taylor, the owner of the office and the title, who wears a single silver hoop earring and speaks of the late experimental artist like an old friend. But for the digital date display of my watch, it might as well be 1985: I'm unapologetically under-the-influence of a rare books librarian and archivist. 

In his current role, Taylor mans an unmatched cache of punk history, performance art records, and rare manuscripts—think trip books and papyrus scrolls—in hundreds of thousands of texts, films, and files. Fales' Riot Grrrl collection, Downtown collection, and Food & Cookery collection are some of the top in the nation. "I’ve always kind of made my own pathway through things, following passions that I have," Taylor says. "I am also really interested in 19th century opera, in experimental works like Richard Wagner's, and things like that which I see in the long trajectory of experimentation; and certainly, the French symbolist poets, because that to me is all really related to what was going on downtown." All this and more finds a home directly within the contents of the library's shelves and stores. 


Contents from the Magic Box; 
“Its a box of physical representations of Wojnarowicz’s metaphors," says Taylor. 

As eclectic as his archives and interests may be, Taylor himself is a classically trained organist and original punk with both a library degree and several decades of high-caliber archivist work under his belt. When I first spoke to him last year, the interview meandered off into ruminations on riot grrrls, a detailed explication of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" music video, and a mutual pining over the singer's "Pussy Wagon" keychain. This time, I aimed for a more focused forum. 

Marvin J Taylor’s career began early. “When I was a kid, I grew up next to an antique shop—let’s just start there,” he tells me from across his desk. “My mother would take me over there if she needed to go off and do something and the woman who ran the shop would babysit me.” In the shop, Taylor read old volumes, a skill he acquired prematurely thanks to a literary grandmother, and immersed himself in the images and objects of a half-remembered past.

From that point on, Taylor found refuge, solace, and satisfaction in books and the places that cared for them. In grade school, he devoured the color-coded beginner books and was veering into the far end of the spectrum—“beige and puce and lavender, all the weird colors"—by the time his teachers sent him to the library to continue his education amid the stacks. This dismissal soon developed into a habit, and by the time he hit his teenage years, Taylor had acquired a position and a modest office in his high school’s library—a convenient haven from the local bullies. 

Richard Hell's journal gifted to him by Patti Smith; 
"Look at all that punk-posturing."

On top of being bookish, Taylor was far outside the status quo of his midwestern peers. "I was never the kid at your high school who went to sports events and hung out with the jocks, you know," he explains. "I was in band and I was studying [organ] music with a private teacher. I always knew I wanted to do something else." And then, there was Punk. 

"A whole bunch of us latched onto it because it felt like a more comfortable place to be," he says. "Along with that came a really intense interest in what was going on in experimental work in New York City. This was the late 70s, early 80s, one of the high points of the downtown scene. We all listened to Laurie Anderson; we all waited for people to bring back albums from New York, because we had trouble getting the latest albums or zines in the middle of southern Indiana."

1st issue of 'Punk': “The magazine that made the term popular,” says Taylor. 

“This image,” he points to the full page display on Brando, “later led me to write a history of the black motorcycle jacket and it’s role in counter-culture.”

Once he entered University of Indiana to study organ at a higher niveau, Taylor found an even larger punk-led community of his fellow "freaks": "I started hanging out with them — we all partied together — and so I became part of a counter-culture — well, not 'counter-culture'... does that even exist anymore?—that was largely populated by queer kids. I would say that 90% of the punks I knew as an undergraduate were also queer. That funny alliance of queer and punk." After uprooting his musical dreams on account of what he deems the "'God' problem," he decided to follow another passion, one that had followed him from his childhood and into college in the form of his work-study job at the school's music library. He pursued a library degree, entered a three-year career at Indiana's revered Lilly Library, moved on to a position at Columbia University, and eventually headed over to NYU in 1993. 

Image from a 1947 photoalbum of one of America's original motorcycle clubs; "With the dungarees, the plain shirts: it's all punk costuming." 

Over the course of a 23-year career at Fales, Taylor has made strides in the collection's contents, and in the past few years, the media's noticed. In 2011, the The New York Times celebrated the library's acquisition of 21,000 volumes on cooking and food from George and Jenifer Lang; in July, ArtNews announced that the entire Triple Canopy's archives would join ranks; and, this week's New Yorker heralds Taylor's most recent triumph of obtaining Jack Smith's personal papers. 

At what seems the peak of a long career, I ask Taylor how he's stitched all these seemingly disparate experiences so seamlessly together. "If you’re passionate about something, try to make it your life’s work," he advised, only slightly wincing at the cliché. "I still get excited about these kinds of materials. The people in my field who are the happiest are those that love the content that they’re around—whether that’s medieval manuscripts or early printed books or, in our case, postmodern dance and performance art and punk rock. That’s the key to success and happiness: do what you like and if you stop liking it, you should probably change and do something else."

"Of all punk iconic objects, this is it," Taylor says.

Click here to learn more about the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections.


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