Music Librarianship

I am a happy cataloguer — it’s true. It doesn’t even have to be books. I catalogue my books for fun, but I’ve also been working (both paid and volunteer) as a music librarian for about three years with my current choir, and for a year with a previous group.

You might be wondering what a music librarian does, actually. I guess this because I was asked that very question last Saturday night, driving with A on the way to see a play. Here is what I do, as a choral music librarian:

At the beginning of term, I find all of the repertoire our conductor wants us to sing. This may involve using music from our own library, purchasing new music, or borrowing or renting copies from other choirs. Once I have the music, each copy is given a unique number, as is each choristers. The copies are then matched, and a folder is assembled for each chorister, containing all of the pieces for the year.

While this assembling is going on, I am also on the lookout for music that is falling apart. Choral music can take quite a beating over the years, especially when it comes to smaller pieces (the bulk of our holdings, in fact) which are stapled rather than bound. If a copy is falling apart, I repair it using surgical tape. Regular tape will dry and become useless, and also cannot be removed without causing damage to the thing it’s trying to hold together. Surgical tape does not have these problems, and we order it in bulk. Sometimes a piece is beyond repair, and some creative re-numbering happens after I make the trip to the recycling bin.

Once the folders are finished, they are distributed to choristers. I keep track of who has paid their fee for the term, because choristers can’t keep their music between rehearsals until they have paid their music deposit for the year. Once a chorister has paid, he or she is allowed to keep the music — and I can stop carting it around.

Around this time of year, we also get requests from other choirs who wish to borrow some of our music. If we have the wanted piece, I make sure that no in-house groups need it, and negotiate for its safe lending and return.

During our season, after everything is distributed, I am responsible for making any repairs that become necessary. I also provide extra copies of the music to choristers who have forgotten their folders, pencils to those who have none, and such like. I also badger our conductor about setting the repertoire for next term, so that I have time to redo all of the above.

After our final (well, only) concert of each term, I collect all of the music that has been returned. That music is put in order, and the copies are checked against a master list of choristers and their numbers. Once a chorister has returned all of his music, he is able to have his music deposit refunded to him. If music is lost forever, I withhold the fee, do some more creative renumbering, and update the catalogue to reflect the new number of copies we own. I don’t purchase a replacement copy as, generally speaking, the music store makes you buy a minimum of five copies of any particular piece. After all of the music is collected, collated, and accounted for, it is re-shelved. This end-of-term process can take about five hours, all told, depending on how many pieces we sang.

Then it all begins again.

Also, I catalogue — in fact, this has been the bulk of my work as a music librarian since last summer. Our library had vastly outgrown its space, an incredibly small and very fire-hazardous room. Accordingly, it had to be moved to a better location, and so my friend L and I were hired to facilitate that. We boxed up the entire library, moved it between floors, and then began the job of cataloguing and shelving.

You have no idea how much work that was.

To put it in perspective, our library holds about 1,000 individual titles. The last time I ran a sum-check, those 1,000 pieces were made up of roughly 34,000 copies. When we started the job, we found that the catalogue hadn’t been updated in fifteen years — and the catalogue as it existed was handwritten on index cards.

Oh boy.

So, we went to it. The first half of the job was boxing everything up for the move, getting rid of any garbage or illegal photocopies that had found their way into the piles, badgering facilities to please please take away our empty boxes, bagging up archival material for removal to the university archives, and dragging piles of flattened cardboard boxes across campus because we had to find our own moving containers. The second half was the un-packing, and cataloguing, and sorting, and counting, and shelving, and re-shelving … and that took, by far, the longest amount of time. It’s still not done, in fact — although everything is done except for our small holdings, pieces of which we have ten copies or fewer. The job stopped when school began again, and now that I’m out for the summer, I’ll be finishing it off.

That’s what I was doing today — cataloguing, stamping, numbering, counting, ordering, and shelving — for about six hours. It’s tedious work, and it involves heavy lifting, and lots of standing because the library table is a weird height for the chair, and on days like today it involves screaming grade nines attending a workshop in the room right under me (the music library is housed in the loft of this room, and so it’s open on one side to what’s down below).

I love it.

There’s something eminently satisfying about a cataloguing job well done. When the music is in order, and in the box, and the box is in order … it’s just lovely. And, believe me, very satisfying.

Music librarianship: now you know.

4 thoughts on “Music Librarianship

  1. Sounds like fun! 🙂 I've sometimes thought that working in a specialty library (like the library for the school of philosophy…or maybe something I know better) would be a nice change. The public is ok, but sometimes they're a bit stress-inducing.


  2. I love cataloguing music. At my church in London we have a very small choir and no music librarian, so I have to do everything myself – meaning that I get to enjoy the simultaneous joys of music cataloguing and noble martyrdom. I've just reorganized much of our misfiled music, meaning that I have to throw out the old catalogues and start from scratch this summer. Hooray!


  3. Oh my, the joys of cataloguing! I feel for you; the weird height of worktables, the carting of boxes, the reshelving!!! But it is nice to know that you also feel the satisfaction of a finished job; I only catalogue regular books, no music, but I know what you mean. 🙂


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