When most people think of libraries, they think of print and books. But these days, libraries are as much about e-books and online databases as they are about copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Librarians are whizzes at helping the public traverse the morass of online information. Library web sites enable patrons to research their genealogy, learn a language, and renew books from home (I used my library’s online “Chat with a Librarian” while researching this post.)
Library collections also encompass far more than the written word. At the Iowa City Public Library, it’s possible to check out framed original artwork, Flip cameras, giant checker and chess sets, video games, and CDs. This last item got reference librarian John Hiett thinking.
In addition to his other duties, Hiett selects about half of the library’s CDs and was well aware that, just as the online world has changed the way books and magazines are delivered, downloadable music has created a profound switch in the how people obtain their favorite tunes. He contemplated what this meant for libraries and their patrons.
“I was at a bar listening to a favorite band late one night, and started wondering what the library’s role was in a world where music is downloaded and how we could involve ourselves in it” says Hiett, a self-proclaimed “barfly,” who pays close attention to Iowa City’s vibrant live music scene. He knew well that the life of a musician is not easy.
“Lots of local musicians tend to have it hard,” Hiett says. “They often have second jobs, they travel a lot and spend time away from home and family. I wanted to come up with something that would be a win-win situation for them and for the library.”
The result is the Local Music Project, which Hiett put together in about a year. Along with library webmaster James Clark, he created a site with a simple interface that enables patrons in the library’s service area who have a library card and password to download local musicians’ CDs at no charge.
While recruiting musicians for the project, Hiett met with some resistance from a few who saw their musical catalog as their legacy and weren’t willing to part with their CDs. He also found some bands who were initially interested didn’t follow through. “Musicians don’t join bands to fill out paperwork,” says Hiett, who thinks the contract (developed in conjunction with the city attorney) may have intimidated some. But others were eager to participate; indeed, many younger bands give music away online already. The tunes must be original and the library pays $100 to lease the rights to the CDs for two years (the downloads work forever). To date, more than 40 musicians have contributed 58 CDs.
What’s in it for musicians? For one thing, it offers them exposure. Most of the CDs on the site are older (in some cases out of print). If a patron enjoys what they hear through the Local Music Project, they’re more likely to check out the band the next time they’ve got a gig in town and possibly purchase some of the band’s newer CDs.
Since the Local Music Project went live the first weekend in June, more than 10,000 songs or 909 CDs have been downloaded. Hiett is hoping to add another round of local musicians and would like the collection to reflect a wider range of musical styles, including hip-hop, electronica, and pop. “One of the exciting things to me is the possibility of including live shows, things that wouldn’t be available anywhere else,” says Hiett.
The project has generated a lot of interest among libraries nationally, and Hiett is happy to share what he’s learned in putting it together. He notes that libraries near one another could form consortiums, giving patrons a wider selection of music and paying musicians more for their CDs. When he retires next year, another librarian will take over the reins of the Local Music Project. When I suggested to Hiett that the project was his legacy, he admitted he was pleased to have it up and running, but modestly deferred to its “stars.”
“This project had been percolating in the back of my head for a few years,” says Hiett. “But let me give the musicians a lot of credit for jumping into a brave new world with no guarantees of what would happen.”
A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.