MLA NEwsletter

Silver Linings from a Library Move

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Editor’s note: In light of the MLA board’s letter to Dartmouth, it seemed fitting to elaborate upon the branch closure I referenced in Newsletter 208. Advocacy is a delicate balancing act, and while branch consolidations can pose significant drawbacks, they can also bring benefits in the appropriate context.

In May 2020, I was informed our music collections would relocate to the main library on campus. The timing was a surprise, though the move itself was not wholly unexpected.

Truthfully, I’d already found parallels between the state of my library and the one described in Jean Wald’s article “Transitioning a Branch Music Library’s Collection Into a Main Library” (Breve Notes, January 2012). Given shared circumstances (reduction in hours and staffing, lack of space for collection growth), her summary seemed to suggest a move for us was inevitable. When describing our scene to others, I’d quip, “we need to grow it up or close it up”, and though I wished for the former, the latter seemed more likely. Several years earlier, my predecessor had planned for a new space to house music, theater, and dance collections together. But funding dried up, and so did the plans.

This should not be taken as a reflection of the quality of our programs or scholarship. To the contrary, I longed for a location that would serve the needs of our community in a welcoming, attractive manner. In reality, the music collection sat in a space that had never been intended to house a library. Years earlier, the collection had been moved in after the facility ceased to serve its original function as a women’s dormitory. The century-old building lacked adequate storage, climate control, and floor support. In fact, an architectural study done twenty years ago urged redistribution of the sound recording collection due to weight load concerns (…and I’ll always wonder about the soft spot in the floor that existed near the MTs…).

When our library director was handed a COVID-induced budget cut, closure became the foregone conclusion, in addition to reduced collection spending for all disciplines and one-week furloughs for exempt staff. Had it not been for several retirements, the cuts would have been even deeper. Even without these events, I maintain that a move would eventually have happened. COVID simply accelerated our timeline.

That’s not to say that any and all proposals to move a library should go quietly into the night. As the MLA board’s letter to Dartmouth eloquently describes, music libraries provide a unique service to their user communities. Libraries are more than collections of items; they are places meant to serve people. Location matters. And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution for how and where music collections are sustained, it’s worth examining the case studies found in the MLA Branch Libraries Task Force Final Report to learn how other institutions have fared, and what questions one needs to ask when the prospect of closure is raised.  In light of COVID, it’s likely other libraries have had to consider or are currently considering similar challenges.

As it turns out, our full-time enrollment made us an outlier in terms of maintaining a branch music library. According to the music reference climate survey published in the March 2021 edition of Notes, among institutions with full-time enrollment between 10,000-19,999, only 16% operated a branch location. Were it not for the generous support of the foundation who funded our collection move decades ago, I doubt our branch would have existed in the first place.

While the task force did not endorse a particular organizational model, it did note that branch consolidation is unsettling. Changes are often implemented with minimal input from music library staff and their user communities, leaving music librarians in the awkward position of coping with imposed changes while trying to present them in a positive light. Though I understood the institutional pressure that led to our move, I was disappointed not to be consulted in the decision-making process. I wish I could have had time to prepare our music department for the upheaval. The change of office and collection location, along with the retirement of our music library assistant, made me feel as though I’d started a new job in August.

So, one year later: how are we doing?

Thankfully, we have silver linings. The collection finally has room to grow, with better building access, including longer hours of operation. Despite the loss, I’ve had positive interactions with the chair of our music department, who understands the tradeoffs of the move. Their liaison librarian (me) may no longer share the same roof, but it’s also less likely our collection will be exposed to water damage from pipe leaks. I was glad to see the collection kept together in a single floor location (an imperative for music collections, as the board’s letter explains), and last week I learned of a new shelf-reading procedure our access team plans to implement this summer whose scope will include the newly-migrated music materials.

For readers wanting to strengthen their library advocacy chops, I recommend not only learning to articulate the value of your collection and services, but studying and understanding your institution’s history. Doing so has not only helped me appreciate the changes over time that have shaped my institution, but has also revealed the influence of external forces, such as the role played by the industries of healthcare and biotechnology in helping our campus, and by extension, our city, thrive. Such realities are not an excuse for poor communication, but have helped adjust my expectations for what it looks to advocate for arts and humanities on a campus whose strengths lie in other areas. How much agency did I have? How could I help make the change more palatable to those directly impacted? In light of short-term pain, could there be long-term gain?

As I’ve heard others state, a librarian must know her collection and the people who use it, and understanding where one’s library fits within the bigger picture can prepare one to advocate. The MLA board’s letter provides an excellent model, underscoring the need and importance of maintaining music collections, with specific examples of how they benefit users and their communities.

What about you? How has your library been impacted by COVID? If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, please contact the editor at mlanewsletter@musiclibraryassoc.org.

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