Most of my career as a performance librarian has been spent working in colleges and conservatories. Over the years I have seen more schools create these jobs, as they come to realize the importance of having a librarian specialist to provide this service for their students and also ensure the security of their large collections of ensemble music.
School performance librarians have much in common with orchestra, opera, and band librarians. We all strive to put the highest quality music on the stands so our players can perform at the best of their ability, and we all face similar challenges of preparing our programs in a timely manner. There are also some differences worth noting, which may help describe the type of work these librarians do.
One difference is the variety of ensembles that a college and conservatory librarian supports. Depending on the size of the school, there are usually ensembles for orchestra, chorus, opera, dance, wind ensemble, concert band, big band and/or jazz combo, marching and/or pep band, a new music ensemble, and other large (and occasionally small) ensembles, from brass choirs to chamber music ensembles. Quite often there are more than one of any of the above ensembles. For example, the New England Conservatory Performance Library supports four orchestras and two wind ensembles, while the Indiana University Performing Ensembles Division coordinates music for seven opera productions each year, all in addition to the other library responsibilities.
Coordinating the music for all the ensembles requires being familiar with the repertoire in each genre. Once the music is located and acquired, the librarian provides the same services for each ensemble: cataloging, part preparation (marking bowings, fixing page turns, correcting errata), and the distribution and safe return of all the parts. Some school libraries have the benefit of student workers to assist with daily tasks, although these students require instruction and supervision. And, like the librarians in professional ensembles, the school librarian handles the day-to-day tasks of consulting with the conductors, attending to the needs of the players, managing the budget, and putting the music on the stands.
At some schools, the librarian is responsible for more than music preparation. They may wear several hats, working as administrators and managers as needed to run the ensemble. The librarians at The Colburn School, Northwestern University, and The Curtis Institute of Music have additional duties serving as personnel managers, stage managers, or operations managers, requiring both attention to detail and to the “big picture” that keeps the department running smoothly.
Another difference involves the educational activities that are the core of the college or conservatory. The performance library assists faculty who need music in their curriculum, such as conducting class, historical performance class, repertoire classes, and many others. Individual students may need music for their recitals or excerpts for their auditions. Alumni may call with questions about locating repertoire or borrowing music. And, if the school has an outreach program, there may be joint ensembles that need support, such as summer band, community orchestra, or community chorus.
The librarian’s educational duties may also include teaching, either in structured courses, workshops, master classes, or through the daily interaction with students. Conducting students need to learn about selecting the right edition and preparing music for their ensemble. Student composers need to learn how to create performance parts for their music. All student musicians need to learn what is expected of them as professional performers and teachers. And occasionally there is the opportunity to mentor a student who shows the interest and aptitude to become a performance librarian.
Working as a performance librarian in a college or conservatory can be very rewarding. You have the opportunity to do good work in a challenging environment with the benefits and opportunities of an educational institution. But you also are able to assist in the education and development of young musicians, watching as their abilities grow, and tracking their progress throughout their professional careers. And the enthusiasm of these young musicians can be infectious and inspiring.