Thursday, 29 December 2016

State Library of Queensland: Sing Me a Library

This year we have the distinct pleasure of hosting updates from Dr. Matt Finch, with whom we’ve worked on a number of LAIP features, as he serves as Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland, Australia. Today Matt fills us in on a number of music-focused, library-incubated projects and explores ways that libraries of different types can support the work and creative life of musicians and audio artists.

by Matt Finch

Take those pieces of information you store, those cultural artefacts, those tales and texts, on shelves and servers, in repositories and reading rooms – take them, and make a symphony.

Let your collection items relate to one another as one instrument, one song, one voice can relate to another: in counterpoint or harmony, in meticulous orchestration or complete dissonance. 

Sing me a library.

Haunted houses, teen movies, and wintry explorations

We’re in suburban Melbourne, walking across the garden to what looks like an ordinary summer-house, except the lights from within glow an eerie purple, and the knocker on the door takes the form of a severed hand.

This is the studio of multimedia artist Peter Miller, aka Scribbletronics – a composer, sound designer, and digital creator whose work includes sound design for movies like The Ring and Rango, ambient installations for Qantas airlines, and Time Travel Detectives, a library youth event previously featured on this site.

We’re here to see a preview of his latest piece Nightcap, a montage derived from William Castle’s 1959 schlock horror House on Haunted Hill


“I’m not a typical musician; I love to trawl through literature and pop culture,” Peter Miller says. “I’m particularly enamoured of out-of-context voice clips, and examining slices of media, trying to hone in on the most engaging thing about them.” 

House on Haunted Hill is in the public domain, which makes it ripe for use in this way.

“I love this movie, but I’m aware a lot of people might find it corny these days,” says Peter. “My efforts are to distil the ‘mood’ from it in musical form, and re-interpret that in a new way. I am attempting to provide ‘re-experience’, if you like; turning a mirror to something in order that you see it in a new or surprising or challenging way.”

For Peter, this goes straight to the heart of 21st century librarianship: 

“I think a lot of people view a library as ‘a place you go to borrow a book’, rather than somewhere that provides a portal into re-experience. Yet a really important function of libraries in this era is to reinterpret the great resource of knowledge that they contain, in a way that strips away the fusty connotation of what a library is and lets people peer into the wealth of possibility that lies there for anyone to access.”

Work like Nightcap has been technically possible for a long while now, but increasingly cheap and powerful home editing technology, plus ever-more-easy access to digital video archives, mean that libraries should actively be thinking about how to encourage, provoke, and inspire this kind of work with their holdings.

It’s not just about creativity, either; this kind of montage can also powerfully serve research, critique, and polemic. British director and critic Charlie Lyne’s Beyond Clueless (2014) offers an analysis of teen movies through editing – the non-fiction equivalent of Peter Miller’s spooky horror project. 

Lyne’s documentary creates a supercut universe where the characters from The CraftMean Girls, Heathers10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless itself are all walking through the same halls, taking lunch together, jostling and gossiping and revealing the common structures of their Hollywood adolescence. 

Musicality is an important component of Lyne’s argument; a soundtrack by the English indie band Summer Camp helps create a sense of continuous flow through the jumble of disparate movie references. 


Lyne isn’t the first critic to nibble at the boundaries between musicality and non-fiction. The eccentric pianist Glenn Gould, after his retirement from concert performances, devoted increasing amounts of time to “polyphonic documentaries” for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 

These shows wove together interviews and ambient sound, creating immersive stories that captured a sense of place and history. The Idea of North, which can still be heard on the CBC website, is one of the first and most renowned exemplars of how one can juxtapose items of non-fiction in a musical way. 

Gould’s legacy for libraries was also a material one; after his death, Canadian librarians acquired much of his archive, including a substantial amount of realia – not least of which was his beloved Steinway piano. 

Maureen Nevins of Libraries & Archives Canada explains: 

“The National Library of Canada held and preserved the largest collection of musical Canadiana including the archives of many prominent Canadian musicians. Of particular concern was that the Steinway CD 318 piano, because of its specially adapted action and mechanism, be kept in active and playing order, to be available to researchers and scholars studying the technique of Gould. This would only be possible if the instrument on which he made both practice tapes and final recordings was in the same location as his archives. The piano was an integral research tool, because of its special modifications.”

In 1980s Canada, a piano could already be seen as a valuable working research instrument within a library. Nearly forty years later, should we be looking at directly linking music technology to our collections?

Spaces of Song

In a forthcoming issue of Australian library magazine Incite, librarian Rob Thomson reports back on a visit to Studios 301, the longest running and largest professional recording studio in the southern hemisphere. He writes:

“Whilst we are very different industries, we also share many similar things. We both thrive on technology and are burdened by the need to sometimes cater for obsolete technologies and redundant hardware. We have both been digitally disrupted!

“We both cater for collaboration and creation. Music studios are the place where musicians and sound engineers collaborate to produce fantastic sounds and music.…Studios 301 has shown me that we need to get out of our library-land and engage with others in the creative industries as we seem to have a lot more in common than what differentiates us.”

Why aren’t we using music and its metaphors to inform the way we store and share knowledge, information, and culture? 

After all, libraries are increasingly becoming spaces of song. Even in countries with relatively beleaguered public library services, like the UK, musical projects such as Get Loud in Libraries continue to go from strength to strength. 

As Get Loud’s Stewart Parsons told Library as Incubator,

“…a library user should leave a library a more enlightened, brighter, happier, braver, more empowered individual compared to the same person that first went in.

“But for that to happen, for that surging flood of the imagination to take place, the original resources often need to be re-imagined. To be presented in a way that is fresh and appealing and meaningful.”

The British public library landscape also includes players like England’s Commoners Choir – a self-proclaimed blend of 80s anarchist punk provocateurs Crass and a Mormon Tabernacle choir, who “sing about stuff that needs singing about”.

That takes the form of specially written songs like “Mechanical Moveable Type”, performed in Leeds Central Library as a tribute to the printed press.


As founder Boff Whalley explains, “Libraries were the physical embodiment of the opening up of knowledge. Especially to the working class. They made knowledge inclusive and welcoming. Choirs are about that physical welcoming, and in Commoners we think that we can couple that communality with spreading knowledge and ideas.”

If we are serious about seeing the public library as a “community hub”, we might expect to see more of this in months and years to come – for what unites us like the power of music? 

Amy Walduck is Queensland State Manager for the Australian library association ALIA, as well as being a saxophonist and music librarian. 

She says: “We cannot consider the future of music in libraries without considering the future of music librarians. Music is a language – just like French, Spanish or mathematics – and this cannot be learnt in a crash course on the job. There are already many great examples of music related programming and events happening but imagine how effectively we could engage with our communities if there was a specialist role.”

“Our libraries could be used as alternate performance and rehearsal venues for up-and-coming musicians, have live music at more events, offer learning programs for how to master the business side of music, technology training for creating music videos on your mobile device and back all of this up with special collections and online resources. I’m getting excited just thinking about it!”

Some pioneers are already using technology to push the boundaries of this approach, exploring voice and musicality in collection discovery. Back in 2012, Chris Gaul featured in Library as Incubator  talking about his residency at the library of the University of Technology Sydney, exploring intuitive and creative ways for people to understand library collections and services.  

Chris’ audio innovations at UTS included Call Number Telephone, which allowed listeners to browse a directory using a rotary phone handset to hear books from the collection. Chris also created Library Frequency Tuner, which allowed listeners to hear books on the Dewey Decimal “frequencies” of a device like an old radio set. 

As Chris Gaul puts it, “Libraries are incubators of moments of insight. These moments … require a wandering, curious disposition and art can be a very useful tool for encouraging this frame of mind.”

Some of Chris’ visual art experiments have already become part of UTS business as usual thanks to the efforts of UTS’ chief librarian Mal Booth and his staff.  For example, the library spectrogram, which visualises the collection as colour wavelengths, has now been incorporated into the online catalogue

One possible next step would be to build sound, too, into pragmatic library applications, using projects like Chris Gaul’s as a springboard to incorporate non-traditional collection discovery into the everyday working life of the library. The sheer size of digital collections requires new tools for exploring outside the constraints of traditional browsing; exploration of senses other than the visual; and literacies beyond those based on the written word.

Who will be building this future? In Australia, it could include musician-technologists like Joel Edmondson and specialist librarians like Ryan Weymouth.

Joel is head of QMusic, the peak body for the music industry in the state of Queensland, but his background also includes research into the creation of digital instruments for young people with learning or behavioural difficulties.

“Music has become part of everyday life,” he said in a recent interview for Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical. “We’ve accepted that we live in a mediated landscape. It’s just a question of scale now, the fact that music can be pretty much everywhere.”

Joel questions how we might see our relationship to music change in an increasingly digital age. 

“If you’re serious about music being a tool for self awareness and that being a useful, relevant thing – especially in the digital age – you’re looking for it to play a bigger role in life than just audience engagement.

“I’m interested in offices which read your biometric data and create a playlist based on the tasks you’re doing, to help you get through the day productively. I’m interested in the music we can offer people in situations like end of life care; in all the scenarios, high stakes and low, where we might see music make a difference.”

Ryan Weymouth, music librarian at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane, sees how these digital developments will also affect the development of future music collections. 

Ryan believes that institutions’ increasing recognition of cultural diversity will play a part in the ongoing relevance of music librarianship: “Western Art Music (music by dead white guys from Europe) is important but no longer the future. There is a whole world of music out there to be studied, collected, and curated. There is potential for music librarians to work as ethnomusicological researchers.” 

As an example, he points to the Conservatorium’s Sound Futures project. This uses digital media to explore the issue of “music sustainability” – the way that developments in technology can threaten or sustain specific musical genres and cultures. By treating musical cultures as ecosystems, they aim to protect and preserve endangered forms of musical expression – and this ecological approach may also have payoffs for libraries seeking to integrate music and community in the 21st century.


“Music is such an effective communication tool,” says Amy Walduck of ALIA Queensland. “We should embrace and utilise the skills of music experts to deliver dynamic library experiences.”

2016 was the year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, collapsing the distinction between libraries’ traditional bookish holdings and the world of popular music. 

We all know the modern library is a place of play and exploration anyway – so, whatever community you serve, there’s never been a better time to rethink how musical your institution should be.

from Library as Incubator Project

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