Music Libraries and Funding | Music Matters

Tanisha MitchellNormally, libraries receive funds that support technological advances and help staff assist patrons and increase outreach. That is not the case, however, for performance libraries that are part of larger artistic organizations. Performance librarians, therefore, must be creative in their behind-the-scenes assistance in mounting great seasons.

Funding challenges

Most public libraries are funded through state and local taxes because the libraries serve the community in a variety of ways. Though money is always in short supply, grants and tax dollars can be used to pay for such innovations as cataloging software, laptops, tablets for patron use, and library outreach efforts.

The Metropolitan Opera’s purpose, on the other hand, is to produce opera performances. Funding for this nonprofit organization comes from donors and ticket sales and is intended to foster the opera’s productions. Therefore, the library’s funding is allocated toward renting or purchasing music scores and parts and for supplies to bind and repair them, as well as toward miscellaneous office supplies such as pencils and pens. There is no financial support for technology to assist users; for example, staff must create databases or spreadsheets using proprietary software.

Technology at the Met

Make no mistake, however: even though it is not supported directly through funding, the Metropolitan Opera Music Library works with technology to bolster productions from the time they are conceived until after the curtain goes down for the last time.

Details in scores and parts must be maneuvered to fit the plot of the opera being staged and the artistic needs of performers. When an opera is first conceived, chief librarian Robert Sutherland researches various editions in order to discuss with conductors, directors, and administrative staff variances to incorporate into or omit from the work.

If details are omitted from an opera, a cut list is created and added into Sutherland’s archival database so it can be compared with future productions. If a large number of variations are added, using music notation software such as Finale will save time.

When a production calls for different lyrics, the librarian must also enter the lyrics into the music via the same software. Orchestra parts must be clear and easy to read so that rehearsals and productions run smoothly. Parts that are poorly printed are scanned and cleaned up in Photoshop. During this process, the visual size of the parts is enlarged, blurred type is sharpened, and print smudges are erased.

Inventory issues

Most nonperformance libraries serve either the public or academic patrons. Staff at these institutions are responsible for meticulously cataloging items so they can be easily located in the future. Software for online catalogs serves these needs through cataloging methodology such as MARC and AACR2, and copy cataloging is an easy option.

In a performance environment, the needs are quite different. The goal is to have the correct editions for all artists and the correct number of parts for the orchestra at the right place and time, whether on stage or off. Such an environment focuses the most attention on the inventory that’s needed for the current season, whereas a nonperformance library tracks inventory that is checked in and out for personal use. Customization means that reliance on outside materials is difficult.

Also, performance librarians consider how many players are needed for a production versus how many parts or scores are on the shelf. The administration relies on these librarians to explain the instrumentation of a production so they can determine how much it will cost to produce. This difference of approach is behind the emphasis on materials needed to present music rather than on current holdings.

Common ground

While there are many distinctions between performance and nonperformance libraries, one thing they have in common is a decrease in funding that coincides with higher rates of use. Funding for classical music organizations is on the wane, but interest in music research and behind-the-scenes data is on the rise.

There are other areas of overlap as well; luckily, innovations in cataloging can apply to the holdings of both music and public libraries. A system used to catalog hybrid versions of operas for production can also work with television series on DVD, documentaries with multiple DVDs, and book series—all are sets with a number of items that are difficult to locate and reserve in an OPAC.

Both performance and nonperformance libraries offer unique outreach and educational and promotional possibilities for their communities and arts organizations, making them exciting yet challenging places to work. And isn’t that half the fun?

Tanisha Mitchell works at three New York City–area libraries—the Metropolitan Opera Library, Opera Orchestra of New York, and Freeport Memorial Library—and was a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker. This is the last of Mitchell’s columns about working with music collections

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Rosalind Alexander says:

    I enjoyed your behind-the-scenes look at a music library, especially the performance side. Congratulations on the honor, and well done on the series of articles!