Special Guest: Music Library Association Conference in San Jose

It's conference time again!

Ethnomusicology is a field that's been notoriously resistant to definition.  That kind of amorphous slipperiness is to be expected, after all, of a field that claims such broad arenas as music, culture, and the entire world.  And – difficulties of explaining to friends, family and acquaintances exactly what it is ethnomusicologists do aside – it's probably a good thing that our disciplinary boundaries, if not our cognitive boundaries, are constantly in flux.

Librarianship, on the other hand, is something that everyone thinks they know how to define.   But in reality, these days it's just as hard to nail down as ethnomusicology.  For one thing, most new librarians of the past decade or so have a Master's degree in Information Science, or maybe Library and Information Science.  (It used to be called just “Library Science.”)  The change is more than symbolic: librarians profess a mastery of nothing less than information – a broad enough claim to make even ethnomusicology blush.  That's information, writ large: far more than books, it includes all kinds of audio, video and film recordings, photos, maps, artwork, architectural plans and schematics, even games and computer software of all kinds.

Oh yeah, there's also that thing called the Internet.

In most years I attend the annual Music Library Association conference.  And, to be completely honest, in most years I find myself and my interests, as an ethnomusicology archivist, to be situated right at the fringes.  At this year's conference, which I attended two weeks ago in San Jose, I noticed that I wasn't the only one out there on the shifting frontier.  In fact, you could say there was an overarching sense that we were all on the peripheries.  Throughout the four days of presentations, meetings, roundtables and discussions I identified a very strong theme – whether the programming committee intended it or not, I don't know.  To call it something like the future of music librarians(hip) seems a little trite; it would better be explained as music + libraries (the place) + libraries (the collections of information) + librarians (masters of information) + shifting boundaries + the future = ???

The opening plenary tried to get at this question by asking those at the top: heads of university libraries and campus administrators.  For all their lofty positions and very real power to effect the changes we're currently seeing, this group was surprisingly short on insight and long – very long – on higher ed buzzwords and platitudes.  Fortunately, after this uninspiring start things started to come into focus.  Formal sessions, roundtable meetings (similar to SEM's special interest groups), and personal conversations covered a dizzying number and breadth of changes, both ongoing and upcoming.  Most of the topics were far too wonky for the present audience, but one I will single out is: jobs.  Where they are, what they are, where and what they're going to be, not just for recent graduates looking for them, but for those of us who already have them, because they're changing so much that it's like we're all getting new jobs too.

OK, I made a confession in my previous conference report, so I'll make one here too: my favorite part of MLA is always the Big Band.  Yeah, that's right: MLA is the only conference I know of that has its own band.  Music librarians, after all, are all musicians first, right?  With a heavy amount of planning in the months leading up to the conference, the MLA Big Band meets for rehearsal after each day's meetings are done, and by the last day, we have a complete set, more or less polished, for the dancers and listeners at the closing dinner festivities.  It's all-volunteer, a lot of work, and a lot of fun.  I don't have any video of this year's edition (yet), but here's some from last year's meeting in Dallas:


[This photo has nothing to do with music or libraries, but I did take it while on a break from the conference in pursuit of good coffee.  I found it.]

"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.