If there is a stereotypical image of a performance librarian at work, it is probably one of the librarian huddled over scores and parts making detailed markings with a pencil, a Staedtler eraser at the ready. In direct contrast with that picture is the reality of the librarian’s professional life which includes the constant challenge of balancing the daily musical work with being an educator and advocate outside the library. The need for such activism is an enduring one, not only within our performing organizations, but also throughout the industry. For the librarian, the experiences enjoyed as a result of these efforts not only lead to tangible improvements throughout the field, but also add a rich and satisfying variety to one’s professional life. Some of my most memorable collaborations have come from volunteering as a teacher, mentor, lecturer, consultant, writer, or organizer in our profession.
It may be surprising that many of those with whom we work most closely have little knowledge of what a librarian’s job actually encompasses or the musical training and skills that are required to do the work. Players often think we mostly mark bowings, put parts in folders, and make practice copies. Conductors know that we acquire the music they program, but few realize what that entails or how much time it takes to prepare the performance materials to their specifications. Administrators have little awareness of the level of musical detail that our work requires on a daily basis. Board members, as well-meaning and generous as they are, often do not even know that we are musicians.
Such a general lack of understanding can hamper even the most efficient performance library from fulfilling its purpose within the organization. When the administration doesn’t understand the library’s function and role, it is difficult to get what is needed for budgeting, equipment requirements, hiring of extra help, or ample time for concert preparation, all of which affects the ability to provide the high level of support that is absolutely crucial to players and conductors. We really would like to be able to put measure numbers into every single set, or comprehensively correct the errors in all works that come through the library, but we are often forced by deadlines and understaffing to put parts on the stands that are less than perfect. In short, the work is never done, and we just try to do as much as we can, as well as we can.
When administrators and boards are educated about the librarians’ role, it leads to a better understanding of why our work is critical to the success of the overall “product.” This paves the way for more support on crucial projects, and more resources committed to the library through increased or, at least, maintained funding. In turn, the organization’s stability for the future is enhanced through larger holdings, the latest critical editions, regular data upkeep, and retaining and recruiting talented and experienced librarians. All of this also benefits the performers who can focus on making music, free from the restraints of incomplete part preparation or inferior materials.
It is critically important for librarians to fully understand how they fit into the bigger picture of their orchestras, opera companies, concert bands, or conservatories. In this way, we can be more effective advocates when acting as liaisons throughout our administrations. The truth is, we interact with every department in the organization in ways that still surprise me after all these years. When I got my first professional library job, I could never have guessed how extensive and varied these collaborations would be. I simply didn’t know that being an orchestra librarian could mean working with everyone, constantly explaining and showing what the librarians do and how the library works in partnership with the rest of the organization.
But it does. Whether it’s presenting budget justifications or proposals to management or finance, providing detailed information to the development staff for grant writing, fund raising, or capital campaigns to acquire music or equipment, working with marketing and public relations by writing for the Playbill or orchestra newsletter, advising on copyright requirements for website content, or speaking to the board members, staff and volunteer guilds, it’s all about helping to create a more effective organization in support of the art.
We embarked upon a special project a number of years ago, in partnership with the fine arts department of our local public library, to begin a long term process of identifying, collecting, and delivering historical records and memorabilia for the creation of an orchestra archive. We were all complete novices in this venture and had to educate ourselves about what we were doing, how to do it, and why it was important to preserve the history of our orchestra. We taught our staff to think before throwing away or deleting relevant correspondence and project materials, and we set up a once-per-year collection to be taken to the public library. We researched the preservation of data both in hard copy and electronic forms. We learned how to establish a Deed of Gift. We worked with the public library to obtain grants and hire a professional archivist. Now, almost a decade later, the collection is ninety percent archived, we have an established process to research and retrieve material as needed, and we have the satisfaction of knowing that the orchestra’s history is being preserved for future generations.
I have also been very fortunate to represent performance librarians in a variety of ways throughout my career, including writing for print and online publications, helping librarians and orchestras in need, consulting on the set-up and organization of a performance library, volunteering through the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) to improve information exchange and resource materials, collaborating with computer engineers to change and upgrade equipment, speaking at affiliated music industry conferences such as the Music Publishers Association and the League of American Orchestras, and assisting orchestra librarians nationally in their working lives through the American Federation of Musicians. It is heartening to see that each effort over time helps in some way to bring improvements in our field and more understanding from our colleagues.
Recently, a special opportunity to share what we do came in the form of an invitation to speak at the annual conference of the Association of Finnish Orchestras in Kuopio, Finland. Fellow librarians, whom I came to know through MOLA, were involved in planning the agenda. The focus was to be on the relationship of the performance librarian with all the other constituencies of the symphony orchestra, and how the libraries might be able to function more effectively for the good of their organizations. The participants were orchestra managers, players, librarians, and civil servants involved with the arts in their home municipalities.
Despite the trepidation I felt that my American experiences would not translate well because of the significant differences in the way symphony orchestras are operated and funded in Finland, I quickly learned that we were all dealing with similar issues and challenges. The message was not that much different on the other side of the world. In our role to provide the musical services conductors and players must have so they can perform at the highest level of artistic expression, it is crucial that we performance librarians have the musical skills, experience, resources, and tools with which to also perform our duties at that same high level. Otherwise, the art suffers.
Performance librarians, by nature, are detail-oriented people. Our tendency, then, can be to immerse ourselves in the music preparation — which is our job, after all — without wanting to participate in the larger goings-on around us. But it’s the big picture that gives meaning to our detail work, the overall impact of great live music on the audience. One can either try to avoid the advocacy aspect of the profession or embrace it. We can no longer just sit in the library, hunched over the parts, lost in the minutiae of the endless details of the notes and errors. We need to regularly step out beyond the library (and, perhaps, our comfort zone) and engage with the players and conductors, staff members, managers, board members, and even the public. We must make ourselves available to answer questions, provide information, and bring people into the library and visit their departments to show that we are part of the whole. Choosing to be an advocate brings an understanding about our jobs and profession that builds relationships and helps to lift up our performers, our administrations, and our industry. In that way, performance librarians have a unique perspective and lasting effect on the art form.