Let’s Play 4: Katharine Hogg

Katharine HoggWith every passing day, we’ve grown more aware of the plight of performing musicians, composers, and organisations such as concert halls and festivals. But today we turn to a different part of the musical world – one with a very particular skill set, which helps to ensure that there can be performances of music in the first place: music libraries. Katharine Hogg is the President of the UK and Ireland branch of IAML. If you’re wondering what the heck that is, allow Katharine to explain:

IAML is the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres. So it represents music libraries and archives; libraries in broadcasting authorities; orchestra, opera and choral libraries (and other professional music settings); and also music publishers and suppliers – as well as the users themselves, the most important bunch. We’re experts in our subject field, and we try to lead by both educating and training, specifically, non-specialists as well to deliver the best services of music libraries possible.’

IAML is a membership organisation, much like the ISM. It’s not a charity, but it uses its membership subscriptions to run training programmes and conferences all over the world, as well as publishing journals and other resources for music librarianship and those of us using resources in music libraries. In the UK, IAML also runs a scheme called ENCORE, which co-ordinates all the sets of orchestral and choral music available for borrowing by professional and amateur performing groups, and allows us to have Liszt symphonic poems in Lowestoft and Rachmaninoff piano concertos in Reading.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Katharine mentioned that IAML members are experts in their subject field. So what kind of specialist training does a music librarian have? It varies, she says: there are no specific music librarianship qualifications in the UK (just a single module at Aberystwyth University within a postgraduate library course), so professional music librarians tend to have a music degree or equivalent, and then some kind of postgraduate librarianship qualification. And some people come into music librarianship from previous work in music publishing, or careers as researchers, so it can be flexible.

The subject specialist angle is clear, then: those with musical training will have good general knowledge as well as knowing how to deal with quirks of cataloguing like a piece with multiple instrumental parts. They’ll also be able to read music (not a given for most people) and deal with enquiries about instrumentation, transposing scores, and so on. We musicians take a lot for granted when we speak to librarians about what we’re looking for.

Over the past 20 years or so, public libraries in the UK have suffered from massive cuts, up to the point of complete closure. In such circumstances, some collections have been taken over by volunteers. It’s tempting for some to think, I suppose, that if a bunch of volunteers can run it, librarians can’t have much in the way of crucial training. But this is absolutely not the case. Katharine talks me through the various aspects of library work: above all, cataloguing and database management systems. Since most of us are currently experiencing the world through our computer screens, you can’t fail to notice that if you type some words into a search engine, something has to already have happened in the way that information has been assembled and tagged to allow Google to retrieve the answer. The way in which information is organised is crucial for finding anything ever again: so how something is catalogued, which information is deemed important, how detailed the record is to help you find things, and how carefully that information is managed, is crucial. Imagine you want to find something about Tchaikovsky. First major stumbling block: how do you spell that? There are many, many options but, as Katharine points out, ‘Everybody assumes that their spelling is the one everybody else uses’. So something has to join all the spelling options together, and librarians have developed a system for this called VIAF – here’s the entry for all the possible spellings of Tchaikovsky, so you can see what I mean.

Librarians also learn about circulation systems of books, acquisitions (how to bring new things into the collection), where you get resources, the difference between hire materials from publishing houses, and materials that you can actually buy. Copyright is also a major topic – ‘music has a separate set of rules from mainstream books’ – as well as other resources that are available, like good databases on a particular composer, or concert life in a given city at a given time. And then there are professional publications that allow librarians to keep up with national and international developments, and of what users want – whether you’re working in a public library or a research collection.

Performing libraries – in opera houses, orchestras and broadcasting authorities – are a little different: ‘your work is a lot more musically hands on because you’re preparing parts, marking them up to meet the particular conductor’s requirements. Often you’re sourcing hire material, particularly contemporary music and hard to find stuff… and often creating parts yourselves. A lot of it is very high-paced, you’ve got to get it all ready very quickly.’ Broadcast libraries also tend to have recorded materials of course (which come with their own set of challenges about cataloguing and preservation). But Katherine also pointed out another, perhaps less-considered aspect of working in a broadcast library: ‘They hate it when their country wins the Eurovision Song Contest, because they suddenly have to prepare all the parts for all the songs. I think when Ireland got it for a second time they were absolutely horrified that they had to do this all over again! Which is something you just don’t tend to think about…’

We’ve touched already on the library cuts of the last few decades, but since I want to find out about the impact of COVID this year, it’s important to get a clear sense, first, of what the scene was like before it hit.

‘It’s pretty bad, frankly. 20 years ago most library authorities would have had a music librarian, somebody with specialist knowledge who could read music, who knew which way up to hold a score, who knew Handel’s Messiah was by Handel and it was a piece called Messiah – the basics. Most library authorities have now got rid of their subject specialists and the music collections are just part of the main collection. So it depends entirely on the personal knowledge of whichever library staff are in the building as to for example whether anyone can tell you what key a piece is in, or even know what instruments it’s for. IAML UK have developed courses which we call ‘Music for the Terrified’, which is for the non-specialist librarian who doesn’t know how to answer the basic questions.’

And it’s not just the end user who is affected by this lack of knowledge – Katharine also mentions the business of binding scores and parts, to keep them in good condition for storage. If a librarian has no specialist knowledge, they might instruct a binder to bind all the orchestral parts for a piece into a single volume, which makes them completely useless for performance. Which brings us on to performance sets, which are the lifeblood of amateur music groups up and down the country. ‘Performance sets are often not on the main library catalogue or finding system – sometimes they’re still a card catalogue because they’re just too complicated and nobody’s had time to put them on.’ So again, specialist knowledge is required to look after them and make them available. Plus, most performance sets are provided via Inter-Library Loan, which incurs charges for the users, but those charges don’t cover the cost of storing and maintaining that stock. And some counties are in such dire straits that they aren’t doing Inter-Library Loans any more – so ‘if the piece is not in your county, tough.’ Which restricts repertoire for all.  And if you’re thinking that online resources like IMSLP might help, you’d be wrong – the parts would still need printing and binding, and are mostly not intended for A4 paper anyway (so they’d be too small). Yet due to funding cuts, several major performing sets collections, including Wakefield and Surrey, have been moved or been taken over by volunteers.

These cutbacks also extend to university libraries, who have either lost their subject specialists altogether, or given music librarians so many other subjects alongside their specialism that they are severely restricted in terms of time. ‘There’s been a general trend in libraries away from subject specialisms towards service structures rather than subject structures. So it’s about being in visitor services or user education, or Inter-Library Loans or acquisitions, rather than doing everything, as I do being in a little library. I think it’s supposed to be more efficient. But it’s slightly odd when you think someone has to look after music who can’t read music, because it would be like asking me to look after the Russian section when I don’t read Russian.’

Again, this highlights the fact that cataloguing is all: if a non-specialist can refer to a good catalogue entry, they’re much more likely to be in with a chance than if they themselves are trying to deal with the vagaries of ‘Beethoven Symphony’ (Which one? Which key? Audio recording, score, parts?).

So what about life since March? What has changed? Well, most libraries were closed and staff furloughed, and those which are now open again (including the Barbican and the British Library) have severely restricted opening hours and no browsing. Some organisations are putting more staff on enquiries desks – librarians can look things up for you if you can go in, in other words, provided their catalogues are detailed enough (back to cataloguing again!). Rich US libraries, Katharine remarks, have started provided a scanning service: provided the request is within copyright laws, librarians can scan and send digital copies. IAML has persuaded music publishers to give temporary permission to make copies where they wouldn’t normally allow it. Similarly online resources have made more available for free, and libraries themselves have had to drop fines for late books and extend loans. The big problem for university libraries is trying to gather stock back in from leaving students – if a cellist forgets to return their part of a string quartet set, the set is ruined because they can’t just photocopy the missing part, and it’s very difficult to buy individual bits from the publisher.

Archives and smaller centres, such as the Gerald Coke Handel Collection at the Foundling Museum (of which Katharine is the librarian), are open by appointment and can at least quarantine books that anyone comes to consult. But so many performing organisations are teetering on the brink financially, their archivist is likely to be the last person released from furlough. And of course no amateur groups can meet, which has frozen performing sets collections as well.

IAML recently held an international (online) conference and has created a list of resources for librarians on good practice and advocacy, which is available here. The big take-home seems to be that it’s crucial for music publishers and suppliers to work as co-operatively as possible with libraries. ‘Obviously they don’t want to go under, so they’re going to have to be more flexible with copyright and digital supply and so on, because otherwise they’ll just go out of business.’ Orchestral librarians reported a spike in their workload – with socially-distanced performances, every string player now needs their own marked-up part (rather than two sharing a score), and all the page turns need re-doing. And of course, international tours seem a far-distant dream right now, even if we don’t consider the impact of Brexit (here Katharine tells me that on a recent visit to Peters publishing house in Leipzig, ‘they said that they had stockpiled a load of stuff in Britain because they didn’t know what the import and export issues were going to be. But they obviously expected there to be complications’).

So… what can we, the music-lovers and library users, do to help?

‘Use your music libraries! Don’t just stay at home and download everything, use the libraries and keep an eye on the stock. Ask for things that the library doesn’t have: if nobody ever asks for anything then that will demonstrate to the funders that nobody wants anything. If the library is threatened do your best to support and join any campaigns that are going on.’ And if you want to contribute financially, you can support the Music Libraries Trust. ‘They support IAML in their projects and in their bursaries for students.’

The Music Libraries Trust accepts donations directly via the Charities Aid Foundation – you can donate using this link.

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