How To Become a Music Librarian
Bowling Green State University Music Librarian Susannah Cleveland says, “A Music Librarian’s work can vary greatly, depending on the type of position you have. For most of us, our work falls on one continuum between public services and technical (more behind-the-scene) services. For someone with a public-facing job, a typical day will include a lot of communication with the public, such as answering reference questions in person or by email or chat, teaching users how to interact with collections, or creating materials to help users navigate collections on their own. Conversely, someone with a technical-services-oriented position might spend more time cataloging collections, selecting and ordering materials, processing donations, or digitizing collections. Most of us have some sort of hybrid of these two areas, so we mix behind-the-scenes work with public-facing work.
There are also different organization types that employee Music Librarians, such as academic libraries, public libraries, or ensembles. There are some commonalities between all of these, but the day-to-day work might be different. Ensemble librarianship, in particular, can be quite different than academic and public librarianship. While the latter libraries will typically have collections of books, scores, and media to support research into and performance of music, an ensemble library will frequently be a collection of scores and parts for a very specific group. For example, one might oversee a collection of orchestra scores for a major symphony or jazz charts for a big band. The Ensemble Librarian will be responsible for organizing these materials and making them accessible to musicians in the ensemble, but they might also need to add markings to parts or keep track of who played which part for which concert.”
“The sizes and scopes of music libraries vary differently from institution to institution,” Cleveland tell us. The size of a library where a Music Librarian works will affect his or her career growth path. Many library professionals begin their careers as student assistants, Interns, or paraprofessionals. “In many cases, it is necessary to move to a larger institution to move up hierarchically, but it is not uncommon for Music Librarians to move into administration to get ahead; because Music Librarians work with a wide variety of library functions, they are often well suited to overseeing the work of multiple departments or functional areas.”
Education & Training
“Music library jobs at academic institutions will usually require a bachelor’s in music—though sometimes substantial coursework in music might be sufficient—and a master’s degree in library and/or information science from a program that is accredited by the American Library Association,” Cleveland tells us. “In many cases, a master’s degree in music is also required or preferred, and, occasionally, a job might also require or prefer a Ph.D.”
Experience & Skills
Cleveland says, “Experience working in a music library as a student assistant or paraprofessional (non-degreed permanent staff) is one of the best preparations for a career in music librarianship. Most library programs require some sort of internship or practicum experience, so those interested in music librarianship should definitely try to complete that experience in a music library, but any additional experience will definitely help.”
“Those interested in public service positions should enjoy working with others, while those interested in more technical work should be good at detail-oriented work,” Cleveland says. “In all cases, a passion for helping others will make for a much stronger Librarian.” Of course, a love for music is also important!
Music Librarians work set hours during the day. Depending on their role at the library, some may work weekend hours while others may have a more 9-5 type of schedule. “Day-to-day work can be a combination of lifestyles, depending on the nature of a position,” Cleveland tells us. “This might include solitary office work, teaching classes (either one-shot instruction sessions or semester-long credit classes), work on a public service desk, committee work, or any combination thereof.”
Student assistant or Intern positions are a good way to gain the required experience while still in school. After graduation, a good place to look for openings are the job posting services offered by professional organizations in the field (mentioned below). Cleveland says, “In some cases, a new Librarian might get a job as a Music Librarian and right away be the head of a small unit, supervising one or two other employees; this person would likely be fulfilling a number of duties, ranging from collection development and instruction to cataloging and digitization. Elsewhere, someone’s first job might be a very specialized position in a larger music library; this person might focus exclusively on building audio collections or processing and preserving manuscript collections.”
“Music Librarian positions are typically salaried,” Cleveland says. “This work is often combined with performing careers; lots of Music Librarians have regular church jobs or play in local ensembles. As one advances, there might be opportunities to earn small stipends for publication or consultation, but the salary is the basis for most Music Librarians’ income.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
“The largest support organization for Music Librarians is the Music Library Association,” Cleveland says. “In addition to hosting meetings on music library issues, the Association has its own journal, Notes: The Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, and several series of publications on topics of interest to those looking at music librarianship and music topics. It also has a job placement service where available positions are posted and offers support for members who are seeking work in music libraries. Another significant organization is for those interested in ensemble librarianship: Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association. This organization also offers professional development and support and hosts a job list, too.
- “Start working in your campus music library immediately, if possible. If you don’t have a full music library, get whatever library experience you can. You might be able to work in the campus library and eventually do some sort of project related to music collections there.
- Get experience helping with the ensemble libraries on your campus.
- Take coursework (or get a degree) in music.
- Do as much research on music topics as you can to familiarize yourself with sources used in music.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Spend as much time as you can in music libraries! Work there if you can, study there whenever possible, and immerse yourself in music materials.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The most frequent barrier for people interested in this career is not having degrees in music. They aren’t always required, but there are few professional opportunities without one.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Why is this work enjoyable?
I think people frequently skip this question because they can imagine many fun aspects of the work, but its answer can vary greatly from one Music Librarian to another. For me, the work is delightful because I get to immerse myself in music and then help others to do the same.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What’s the best thing about your job?
Collecting and preserving music gives us the opportunity to connect people with music from their own past, and this is a wonderfully rewarding thing to do. People frequently approach us with questions about music played at their parents’ wedding fifty years ago, or the theme song to a favorite childhood television show. Being able to point people to the music and help them access scores or recordings of that music is such fun!”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Susannah Cleveland is the Head of the Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives at Bowling Green State University. She received her M.M. in Musicology and M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of North Texas in Denton and her B.M. in Music History from Baylor University.