The Weird and Wonderful World of Music Librarianship


Megan Dyson is a newly qualified librarian currently job hunting after taking time out to be a full time mom. Originally from Louisiana, Megan studied violin performance at Belhaven University, earned her MMus at Leeds University and MA Information and Library Management at Northumbria University. She’s worked in school and music conservatoire libraries and is the bursaries administrator for the Music Libraries Trust. Follow me on Twitter: @MeganDyson3 and check out my blog: 

I am writing this about a year after I originally intended to – blame it on procrastination and also having a baby! I followed HLS throughout library school (a distance learning MA at Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK) and graduated in Winter 2016. Though I’m no longer studying, I wanted to give back, and the kind folks at HLS suggested I write a post about my specialization: music librarianship. There’s an excellent post already on HLS by Sarah Alexander about how to become a music librarian. I’ll talk a bit more about what the work is like.

Basically, music librarianship is like any other subject specialism within LIS; the underlying practices and principles are similar (organizing information, information literacy teaching, collection management, copyright, etc.) but the specific resources are unique. A music library would have all the usual items like books and journals but also usually include sheet music, various audio-visual formats and lots of resources about music.

A music library would typically both support teaching, learning and research, and also, its logical application: performance. Although, this varies somewhat depending on what type of music library it is (academic, conservatoire, public, national, etc.). We also get zany/obscure inquiries like any library. For example, I used to get ones like ‘Do you have that song by Mozart…?’ Where they’re not really sure it’s by Mozart, and can’t exactly remember the title and then you have to try and work out how to spell a vaguely Italian sounding phrase into the catalogue search…Of course if you happen to be a singer yourself, this inquiry would be much easier! (I’m a violinist) Most music library staff, though certainly not all, are musicians themselves. It certainly helps to have an understanding of music, in particular reading music. As you can see, music libraries have a lot in common with other libraries; however, there are some distinct issues that crop up for the music librarian, one of which I’ll describe.

Editions or versions of scores in the Western classical tradition present some interesting problems. Orchestral librarians, or music librarians who work with performing groups (orchestras, choirs, opera companies) to provide their printed music have to be especially aware of these kind of issues as sourcing the wrong edition can make for glaring mistakes. I remember one music librarian in a large broadcasting library relating a story where two different editions of the same work were unwittingly used in a performance broadcast on TV. However they differed in that they specified different instruments for a solo section. So when the time came to cue the cameraman to go to the soloist, they zoomed in on the wrong musician while the soloist played off camera! Another facet of this is the idiosyncratic nature of how composers published works and how they have since been numbered by music publishers and editors. The composer Franz Schubert is a classic example. His “Great C Major Symphony” has been variously numbered as no. 7, 8 and 9…Clear as mud right!? A simple example from my own experience was checking what translation underlay singers wanted in their vocal scores for songs written in foreign languages. Of course they usually wanted English translations, however some editions only had French and German.

I hope this brief overview of music librarianship has been enlightening. There’s a lot more to discover! Here’s a few other HLS posts that might be helpful on choosing a library specialism and on non-traditional collections. Also check out these professional organizations: Music Library Association (US branch of the International Association of Music Libraries) and IAML UK & Ireland branch.

Featured Image: “Music” by Thatgirlwhoreads. Licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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