Saturday, September 10, 2005

Why isn't the drummer wearing any shoes?

I finally got the chance to listen to the episode of This American Life [Image Makers 8/5 Episode 294] which profiled a rock band from Michigan called The High Strung. The High Strung played a summer of rock concerts in libraries throughout the state. Why is a rock band playing in a library, one might ask. It was the brainstorm of a "maverick teen librarian." This was an indy band and they got to play in conference rooms, outdoor pavilions, and once at the reference desk.

This episode, interesting for many reasons for me, was particularly engrossing because of what it said about the value of library as place, and the sociological norms we often impose on what's supposed to go on there. I value libraries as one of the last public places that silent and reflective individual thought can still occur, outside of the constant din of Muzak, vehicles, construction, and advertisements. But I also see the value of using the library as a place to promote and share cultural heritage--in music and spoken word, as well as text and images.

The performance of the band created a fine example of cognitive dissonance in the audience. I've probably been conditioned to accept only certain sounds in the library, which now includes the sound of printers, computers, and even cell phones (unfortunately). (Does anyone know if libraries used to have typewriter rooms?). Talking is common in the Information Commons at IU, but not so much in the Main Reference room. Very clearly there are degrees of sound which are acceptable in certain places. So, if a library flauts convention and books a rock band to make very loud noise in their normally-quiet space, what is the library's primary patrons to make of this? Should we build new (potential) audiences at the expense of established ones?

Overall, I saw the band's touring as an intriguing sociology experiment. I think one positive message that can come from these concerts is that people of intellect and critical thinking can come in many different forms. We all have our preferences for how we study and the company that we keep. We might never admit (out loud) that a rock musician doesn't belong in a library, but tacitly that's why it's so shocking not to just hear them play there, but also to see them in a library.

A public library is supposed to serve all sectors of society, from the very young to the elderly. It should also serve a broad strata of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups. Maybe it is time for rock musicians to take back the library.

I think silence should be the norm; but if we're going to allow music in our libraries, we could do worse than reflecting our patrons' tastes--even challenging them at times. We as librarians have access to information on the best of what's out there, even out of the way, indy acts. Libraries could inspire and promote new talent, many of whom are often alternative voices of the community who might remain unheard without such a venue. The public library (in many communities) often serves many other roles besides book warehouse; it can also be the local coffeehouse, indy film theatre, community center, cybercafe, and even a place for young musicians of all genres to get their start.

At the end of the concert, a four-year old said of the music, "I like the way it vibrated on me."


At Sat Sep 10, 04:55:00 PM, Blogger bill said...

What's interesting, Thom, is that I think Academic Libraries could stand to follow this path as much as Public Libraries, but only the latter are really seen as places where this kind of activity is normally acceptable, aren't they?

At Sat Sep 10, 06:43:00 PM, Blogger Thom said...

It's possible that the interest would be there, but unlike a public library, an academic library is not a stand-alone institution. It belongs to a larger college or university, with music departments and student activity committees, which often are responsible for programming music and other cultural events. Aside from departmental apathy and inertia often inherent in large bureaucracies, I suspect that the turf wars would be the biggest obstacle. That and the trouble and cost of extending performance rights (covered through university blanket licenses from ASCAP and BMI) to another area of campus.

It goes without saying that I think academic librarians are probably as open to new ideas and change as public librarians. It's just a matter of how willing your institution is to support all these new initiatives.

At Mon Sep 12, 08:43:00 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

That said, I think Toledo-Lucas Co. (Ohio) PL had a series of concerts aimed at teens and young adults this summer... been a while since I read about them, so my recall may be fuzzy, but I seem to remember that they hosted a variety of musical genres. And I thought that was really brave and cool... definitely one way to get the next generation interested in what libraries have to offer beyond shushing librarians and dusty books (which, of course, persists as a stereotype, despite the excellent efforts of many libraries to combat it).


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