As an area of research and study, music has special requirements. Musical terminology and language are an obvious example of this special nature but there are intrinsic differences as well. For instance, the need to share information that is frequently ‘auditory’ rather than visual has its own problems and requires a ‘shared experience’ on the part of the requestor and the librarian (for instance, ‘do you know this piece of music’ can only be answered by someone who shares the ‘experience’ of hearing and recognising the music being hummed, whistled or played).

Librarians (including music librarians) aim to provide a quality service for their clients. This means providing a service that is efficient (providing materials in a timely manner) and effective (providing the right materials to meet the needs of the client). Such a service is cost-effective in that it provides the material that is wanted without either waste or delay. Without shared knowledge and experience, however, the generalist librarian will be at a disadvantage because the terminology is unfamiliar and difficult to ‘pick up’ quickly. With some subjects it is possible for a librarian to pick up a reference book and relatively quickly get a basic understanding of what the enquirer is after. This is less easily achieved in the area of music.

Music libraries exist to provide client access to music and music related resources in all their varied formats. Music librarians are able to deliver this quality service because they have the requisite education, knowledge, and experience.

Key Issues Impacting on Music Libraries

Music plays an important part in the lives of people of all ages. It can have symbolic significance for nation-states and regions, can be a source of deep emotional experience for the individual, or can be an expression of life-style, image and social belonging.1

It can seem that the role of music, as expressed above, is not always valued when it comes to decisions about music libraries for the following reasons:

  • Music librarians have the expertise to deliver the best quality music library services to clients. The trend towards replacing specialist music libraries within generalist collections in universities and other research organisations, and in public and state libraries, usually means the “generalization” of the music specialist librarians, who are required to abandon their music focus and work with all subject areas equally. This compromises the quality of service provided to music specialist clients. It can also mean that collections are used more heavily by non-specialist users for uses for which they are not intended and the resulting ‘wear and tear’ (eg on sound recordings) can limit the useful life of expensive resources.
  • Music librarians can promote use of collections that is both strategic and focused to their specialist clients. However, when music is part of a larger library, all marketing and promotion is undertaken, usually along strict guidelines of uniformity, by large departments responsible for marketing the whole library.
  • Training and professional development for music librarians is currently not available in any systematic or recognised way.
  • Funding tends to be only adequate for staffing and collection maintenance/replacement. There is very limited growth in music libraries – which are often, in fact, declining.
  • Technological developments have seen a rapid rise in the number of formats and file types for musical resources which can be expensive to keep up with. While the Internet provides a great deal of material of great interest, there are research tools and reference materials that are not available online and music research in some areas can rely heavily on unique or rare materials. Where materials are available electronically, issues of ongoing ownership are of concern in music – as they are in all reference collections.
  • Space requirements for multiple formats and increasing use of computers in research are rarely met to more than minimal levels.
  • Copyright issues in an increasingly digital environment are a particular issue requiring ongoing training and development for staff involved in dealing with these materials.


  • Music is a ‘special’ subject: Music has cultural, aesthetic or therapeutic roles in many disciplines (including dance, film etc)
  • Music information has ‘special’ characteristics: Music librarians understand the terminology and organization of music and music resources.
  • Music librarians are ‘involved’ in their subject: Music librarians frequently have musical networks as performing musicians themselves.
  • Music librarians are expert knowledge workers: Music librarians have extensive knowledge of specialised bibliographic, electronic, and audio-visual resources.
  • Music librarians have professional networks: Music libraries use emerging technologies to develop and foster cooperation – MusicAustralia.
  • Music library clients value their librarians: Clients appreciate the fact that they share experience and values with their librarians.


  • Increasing competition from other sectors of the institution or society to do traditional library work, eg Research Centre at Queensland Conservatorium.
  • Centralization of functions once centred in music libraries (selection, cataloguing, reference) and generalization of music librarians
  • The variety of music formats is not popular with library managers who see them as space consuming and often “old fashioned” (eg LPs, old sheet music)
  • Music librarians (and libraries) are distant from one another in Australia: This reduces the opportunity for cooperation and sharing of resources.
  • Music librarians prefer to remain with their subject specialisation: Very few music librarians hold higher management positions. With their generally low profile music library professionals have difficulty in communicating needs and using advocacy effectively.
  • Music librarians and technicians have few training opportunities: There is no specific training for music librarians and technicians in universities and TAFE colleges, and minimal opportunity for in-service training.
  • Lack of general public access to music libraries limits appreciation of their value.
  • Copyright issues (often multiple) are problematic, often discouraging music library use: There needs to be stronger copyright education for the public in and outside libraries by government agencies.


  • Technology – 1) Digitization offers opportunities for improved access to rare and fragile collections.
  • Technology – 2) Web 2.0 and other technologies offer improved opportunities for promotion of music libraries.
  • Networking / collaboration – 1) Music librarians could make more use of opportunities for sharing metadata and resources.
  • Networking / collaboration – 2) Music librarians could explore opportunities for collaboration / sponsorship etc from networks beyond music organizations.
  • Research value: Music librarians could increase and promote special collections that are suited to academic research.
  • Political: Music librarians will share the increased commitment to arts funding by the new federal government.


  • Centralization of library services: This strong trend downgrades specialist music collections and the functions that maintain them, and leads to a lack of specialist skills development.
  • Generalization of reference services: Generalist reference staff now provide reference services for music clients, which lowers both music service standards and music client expectations.
  • Perceived lack of relevance: The maintenance of music libraries as centres of excellence is not a priority for management and government.
  • Music department shutdowns and mergers: This signals to powerbrokers that music is not a subject worth supporting
  • Internet: Google and other search engines do not provide the efficiency to support scholarship, and yet are being touted as a replacement for libraries.
  • Digitization: Digitization projects are creating expectations that cannot be met, and are reinforcing views that hard-copy and redundant formats need not be kept.


Laurel Dingle, 2008



Past President, IAML Australian Branch. Music Librarian, State Library of Queensland.

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *