Nov 01 2002

To Be a Music Librarian

Published by rachel at 7:50 pm under careers, work environment

by Paula Elliot

For the Love of It

Specialist-librarians often possess a particular jealously-guarded affinity for their favorite “stuff.” It’s clear that this is the case among the hundreds of music librarians in the U.S. If you love music, and can’t live without what music does for you, imagine working with the materials of your favorite field in that very environment you’ve determined to spend your career in: the library.

If you’re a librarian (or soon to be one) with a passion for music — whether you’re a performer, a scholar, an armchair listener, or you just like to dance to it — a music specialty can give you the opportunity to do just that.

I was already established as a general reference librarian when I responded to a job ad that sought a “reference librarian — music emphasis.” With my background in music, it was a good fit for me, asking me to be a generalist at the reference desk while also selecting music materials for the library’s collections. As at many libraries, the library’s reference team was comprised of subject specialists. I was eager to combine my knowledge of music with the work of librarianship.

Little did I realize then how rich the world of music librarianship could be. Yes, I got the job. I still work for the institution that gave it to me, and, although my career has changed over the years, I’m still happily responsible for music collections at the WSU Libraries.

Of course, being a generalist with a music specialty is only one of many options for a librarian specializing in music. Music catalogers’ knowledge of the field and the unusual demands of music bibliographic control are needed to make collections accessible. Branch librarians are responsible for a special library within a larger system, often providing not only public service but sometimes technical service while also carrying out administrative responsibilities. There are librarian-teachers, who combine library responsibilities with academic ones. Public librarians strive to meet a community’s musical needs for performances, audience development, school assignments, and private lessons. There are music librarians for orchestras and for radio stations, music librarians to develop online resources and those who set up freelance businesses. There are audio archivists, and experts in audio digitization.

The common link between these librarians is their love of music. If music weren’t in their lives and in their hearts, they’d be librarians of a different stripe.

Other People Just Like You

Often, a music librarian may be one-of-a-kind at his or her institution. Fortunately, there’s a network of support for such people through the Music Library Association, a thriving and well-run professional organization comprised of music specialist librarians, several hundred strong. An annual MLA meeting is a spirited reunion of people linked, not only by their work as librarians, but by their common love of music. The informative sessions are about librarianship as it specifically relates to music, and discussions of the problems of music in libraries are prevalent in the midst of what feels like a celebration. Plenary sessions focus on the music of the region in which the meeting is held.

In addition, MLA has roundtables for groups interested in various aspects of music: Film Music, Jazz, Jewish Music, to name a few. Within MLA’s administrative structure, any interested group can petition to form a roundtable and host a program at the meeting. MLA-L, a lively discussion list, is active with reference and cataloging stumpers, information-sharing, and discussions of professional issues and humor. There’s a lot of support for new members in the organization, mentoring programs, continuing education programs, and opportunities for conference presentations and participation on committees. There’s even an MLA Big Band! Which leads me to mention that, for performing musicians, being a music librarian is a way to keep making music independent of the fiscal vagaries of the performer’s life.


To be a successful music librarian, strong general knowledge of music is a must. Many music librarians have at least a BA in music, but I know some who don’t. As librarians, we come by our knowledge in a variety of ways. Background in a companion field like theatre or art can give an interested librarian an opportunity to work with music in a fine or performing arts department or branch library where related subjects are combined.

For academic jobs, an advanced degree is often expected, and it’s not uncommon to find a music librarian with a Ph.D. in the field. Many earn their advanced degrees while working full-time as librarians. As any librarian would agree, there’s no such thing as too much knowledge!

Job Opportunities

For information on opportunities in music libraries, see the MLA Joblist on the MLA web site. Also on the MLA site, you’ll find a guide to library schools offering training in music librarianship, and a list of publications that will give you another glimpse at the field.

Back to the Love of It

We don’t become librarians for the money. We seldom do it for fame. We do it to help people, to make a contribution… you know all that. Here’s the bottom line: We do it to communicate something that we love to others. If you’re enthusiastic about music, consider becoming a music librarian.

Paula Elliot is former Head of Humanities Collection Development at Washington State University. Currently on sabbatical leave, she is writing a book about music librarianship and music librarians.

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