Book talk – music librarians, we salute you

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending my second conference of the year in sunny Antwerp. But following my voyage to Toronto back in June, this was a conference of a different hue: it was the annual conference of IAML, the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres. Each year, music librarians, archivists and other information officers get together for a week-long event that features papers, discussion corners, meetings, working groups, and an important opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues operating all over the world. It is a chance to talk, have fun, and learn from each other.

Now, you might wonder, given my little introduction there to the purposes of IAML Antwerp, what I thought I was doing showing up to present. I don’t have any official library training, and whilst terms like ‘VIAF’ and ‘MARC 21’ are vaguely familiar, I don’t fully know what they mean (please note the inclusion of helpful links in case you’d like to find out). I did work closely with the special collections at the Royal College of Music for five years, and I do have some idea of how to look after and document musical archives and collections. But actually, that wasn’t entirely why I was there either.

All over the world, every day of the week, librarians have a vital and fundamental task. They are there to help us navigate the gargantuan ocean of information that is available to us – to chart it, make some kind of sense and order of it, and show us how to find it. They create catalogues and handlists, sort through acquisitions and donations to find out what treasures are undocumented, help to advise upon what further resources their library might acquire, and make it available to us, the users, to explore. They also protect that legacy of accumulated knowledge for the future. They are information managers, curators, conservators, and those friendly faces at the issue desk when you can’t find what you’re looking for. That takes a lot of patience, a great many specialist skills, and a broad knowledge base.

But librarians don’t work in a vacuum – the information that they curate, whether that be print, manuscript, audio-visual material or web-based documentation – is there to be used by the rest of us. We want to be able to find the books we’re looking for. We want to know who holds that Beethoven concerto manuscript. And as researchers, we are increasingly living in a world where the amount of digitally available journals, books, newspapers and other resources is fantastically impressive and very important to those of us on the hunt for new discoveries. Most of us will end up publishing digitally too.

So I went to the IAML conference for two reasons. First of all, as a user of some of the superb resources now available to me as a music historian, I wanted to show the IAML community at large what their hard work had facilitated, by granting me access to this material. (Those of you who have ever had cause to use RILM, RISM, RIPM, Concert Programmes Online or Hofmeister XIX have been using IAML resources, for instance.) I’ve been working with a huge number of concert programmes and daily papers, and that would have been unimaginably harder – and far slower – without the likes of the IAML professionals.

Second of all, I wanted to help. Let me explain. Not entirely surprisingly, researchers and information managers have different concerns when they set to work. Information managers want to make sure that they have a sound data structure, have included information in an internationally-recognised system, and have dealt with variants in a way that makes them fully searchable. You may think that this is all very straightforward, that it’s just a case of data-crunching. But every specialist subject has its quirks, and rules have to be adapted. Take Wagner. His first name wasn’t Richard. His second name was Richard. So how do you ensure that 1) a user can find him on the catalogue and 2) that user is also properly alerted to his full details? Confusing, right Johannes?

Brahms in NYC 3

Or what about a composer whose name can be spelled in multiple different forms? Like Stravinsky. There are, so far, 179 known alternate spellings of his name. This is why VIAF is important (here’s his record). And let’s not get started on how you render the word ‘concerto’ in all known languages.

Researchers, on the other hand, want to know what institutions hold. They want to be able to find things. Immediately. They want to be able to type in ‘Rite of Spring’ and be able to track down the manuscript, copies, printed scores, variants, letters, concert and ballet programmes, reviews, correspondence, studies and analyses… The list goes on. And the majority of them don’t think like librarians, and don’t necessarily care what the metadata looks like just so long as it gets them to the material they’re looking for.

So when I say I wanted to help, what I mean is: the most effective way to build new resources that draw on library and archive holdings, and are of use to researchers, is for librarians and archivists and researchers to talk to each other about their respective needs and priorities. It sounds simple, but as with so many simple things, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it happens. As we all become more and more technologically savvy, researchers have sometimes taken the initiative to go off and build databases on their own. That’s laudable – but if they don’t connect up with any known cataloguing system, or the designers haven’t heard of something like VIAF, problems can arise and there are limits as to how the data can be pulled into bigger resources (like WorldCat and Europeana – check them out if you don’t know them, they’re pretty amazing and not just for music!). And similarly, sometimes a library might track down a small pot of money to digitise a collection of documents, but without the funds to fully catalogue them, make them searchable only by date. That’s better than nothing, of course. But if you have 50 years of weekly concert flyers only indexed by date, and you’re looking for performances of Brahms piano works… you’re going to be there a while.

I was only with IAML Antwerp for a few days, but during that time I met some formidably skilled librarians from internationally-renowned orchestras, leading universities and public libraries; I learned about a host of new and exciting resources and projects; and I was able to give some kind of (I hope helpful) input into a developing cataloguing project, from my perspective as a researcher who would love to use it. So the next time you visit your library, go and say hello to the librarian. Ask them about the collections, and tell them what work you’re doing. Have a conversation. That’s how all the best ideas start.


This post is also featured as a guest article on the IAML website – you can find it here.

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