Librarian in Black published a very interesting post yesterday on the state of music in libraries. Overall, I agree with her thesis that libraries are lagging as a source for music in their communities. I don’t really know enough about digital music vendors to respond to her points, other than to say that what she describes sounds like a very frustrating system with lots of restrictions.
I consider myself an avid music consumer and library user, but I almost never get music from the library. Most of the music I listen to is from the broad spectrum of popular music, and if I want to listen to it, it’s much easier for me to pull up a track on YouTube or GrooveShark than to log into the library catalog, see if the library owns the CD with the track I want to listen to, put it on hold, wait a week for it to come in, and go to the library to pick it up. Even if I could stream songs for free from the library’s website, I’m not sure why I would bother having to log in and navigate a dense online library catalog to do so. The only way I would be likely to get music from a library website is if I could download full albums without the fear of legal repercussions, and as the Librarian in Black notes, this is not going to happen until some library risks putting its music collection online and facing the legal repercussions. Essentially, I think it’s unlikely that at this late stage in the life of the Internet, libraries are going to be able to turn themselves into a major source of free music. Sources and methods of free downloading (both legal and illegal) and streaming are just too entrenched for libraries to make significant inroads.
However, I think there are opportunities for libraries to target niche areas of music consumerism. The few times I have borrowed music from the library, it has been music that is more difficult to find online (typically classical or opera of some kind). I understand that it’s hard to balance the acquisition of more obscure music that is difficult to access via other sources with the acquisition of popular music that gets checked out more often. But these are also items where a major library system may only need to buy one or two copies to serve its whole network via interlibrary loan instead of buying 20 copies of the new Black-Eyed Peas album in the hope of drawing more teenagers to the library.
This discussion also ties in to the need for libraries to understand and serve their communities. Public libraries could create in-depth, detailed collections of local music from the geographic community, including explanations of connections and influences. The local network may also make it easier to get permission to make the music available online for free. Universities with strong music programs could work with their libraries to develop more specialized academic collections. These types of music collections aren’t as “sexy” and aren’t going to be as popular as being able to offer the whole Billboard Top 100 for free download, but they do serve a purpose. Libraries can also offer instruction on legal methods and sources for people to access digital music. They can offer live music events to publicize their music collections. There are still opportunities for creative libraries to serve their communities with their music collections.