Inside Look: The Bob Dylan Archive®

Mark Davidson HeadshotBob Dylan: Face Value and Beyond is not the only thing drawing visitors from far and wide to Gilcrease Museum. The Bob Dylan Archive®, housed in The University of Tulsa’s Helmerich Center for American Research on the Gilcrease campus, attracts researchers from around the world seeking to dive deeper into the legacy of the folk music legend.

Scholars who meet the archive’s qualifications are granted access to roughly 60,000 physical items and around 100,000 digital items housed in “Starchive,” which is accessible by only a few computers – some in the archive and some in New York. All of these materials are overseen by Mark Davidson, archives director for The Bob Dylan Archive®, who helps researchers find exactly what they need.

“The Starchive system that we have here is connected to the Dylan office in New York,” Davidson explained. “We can share the information on our computers, but it is not available anywhere else. For scholars who want to research all of the unheard and unseen Dylan material, they either have to figure out a way to break into the office in New York or come to Tulsa and do their research here.”

With Davidson’s help navigating the archive, researchers like Clinton Heylin are able to glean new insight into Dylan’s personal history and creative process.

“There’s so much new material available in the archive,” Heylin said. “There’s material that changes the way you think about Dylan. It’s only when you come here that you know what it is you’re dealing with.”

Before the archive came to the Helmerich Center, would-be experts did not have access to objects like song drafts that can reframe Dylan’s legacy. “The archive turns everything on its head,” said Michael Chaiken, curator of The Bob Dylan Archive®. “As much material is out there, as much research has been done, these researchers have never been able to go to primary sources like this. There’s so much more detail now, these materials add a whole new level. They fill in a lot of gaps and explain a lot.”

Access to objects such as song drafts have shifted the narrative of the artist’s life by offering researchers a glance into his creative process and timeline.

“It can be the most innocuous of things,” Heylin said. “We never necessarily knew the order that songs were written in – we could only guess. But this particular draft of “You’re a Big Girl Now,” a key song from Dylan’s seminal album, was written prior to the break-up with his wife, Sarah. So, the song that we always thought was about the breakup turns out to be a plea for Sarah to forgive him before they broke up. It changes the whole sense of what that song or what that album was about.”

The Bob Dylan Archive® will become more available to the public with the planned 2021 opening of The Bob Dylan Center in the Tulsa Arts District. There, the public can view curated materials from the archive, similar to what is being displayed in Bob Dylan: Face Value and Beyond.

“The first process was getting the archive here and getting it to a stable location, which is the Helmerich Center for American Research at Gilcrease,” Chaiken said. “Now that everything is here, we can work toward the creation of The Bob Dylan Center, which is essentially the public face while the archive is the beating heart.”

Bob Dylan: Face Value and Beyond