Academic Music Librarians’ seminar, Cardiff University

While the turnout for this year’s Academic Music Librarians’ Seminar might have been smaller than usual (in the end there were nine of us, from Cambridge, Cardiff, London, Manchester and Oxford), there was certainly no lack of ideas or discussion. In fact, we probably needed about another hour to really get to grips with the several important topics in our timetable, so perhaps a 1 p.m. start is on the cards for next year. A blog post isn’t the place for a blow-by-blow recitation of everything that happened during a rather grey afternoon in Cardiff, but I’ll try to fit in as much as I can here. Location for the meeting was the Arts and Social Studies Library, close to the Cardiff University School of Music. 

The News and Reports section of the afternoon quickly showed that there is a lot going on in UK music libraries right now. The RNCM, for example, has received some lottery funding to help it mark the centenary of the “Northern School of Music”, one of its two predecessor institutions. The RCM has the Rutland Boughton Archive on loan from the Boughton family (hands up anyone who knows more than “The Immortal Hour” by this composer, who was once a student at the Royal College). There are big changes going on at Oxford, with library reorganisation including the absorption of the Music Faculty Library into a humanities library hub by the mid-2020s. The RAM is putting images from its special collections into the Internet Archive ( Helen Griffiths of the Royal Welsh College reported upon the “Opera Rara” archive that they have acquired fairly recently. They have the benefit of a professional archivist to work through this material. During the morning on the day of the seminar I was lucky enough to have a tour of their library, and to meet several of the staff there. They use an interesting “home-made” classification scheme that reportedly owes something to the influence of composer Alun Hoddinott as well as to Melvil Dewey, the latter rather less known for his musical compositions than his organisational obsessiveness — see photo (I was told that the letter “K” on these mini scores signifies symphonies, btw. The “P” means that it’s a score).

Geoff Thomason then led a roundtable on “Music Librarians and Research Degrees”. Geoff (who already has his doctorate) and Kathy Adamson (who is in the middle of hers) spoke about their personal research journey, their experiences quite different from each other. Nick Clark from the Britten-Pears, who also has a doctorate, had kindly sent some useful written notes that set out his thoughts on the benefits of librarians having had some sort of research experience, whether at Master’s, M.Phil or PhD level. Lots to talk about in this part of the afternoon.

After a quick break we were treated to two very powerful presentations, on different but important topics. Kate Eaton (Guildhall School) talked about “Supporting student well-being: experiences in a Conservatoire Library”. Lots of food for thought here, some of it difficult. Kate cited various statistics about the issues that today’s students face — for instance, a piece in Guardian Education in March this year reported that, of a sample of 40,000 students, almost 43% reported feeling anxious “all or most of the time”. What’s going wrong? We also heard that, while organisations might concentrate their mental health efforts on helping first-year students integrate into their new surroundings, it is second- and third-year students who are more likely to self-harm. 20,000 students dropped out of higher education in 2015, at least some of them for mental health reasons. And so on. My own takeaways from this session were (1) this is a topic that deserves fuller discussion at an ASW; and (2) the figures may suggest (though I’m not a mental health professional) that large numbers of students who are currently in higher education really shouldn’t be there since it’s taking too high a toll on their well-being. We need realistic and respected alternative routes to higher learning and good jobs. On the positive side Kate pointed out that library staff have transferable skills that can be used to help vulnerable students. These include things that we might take for granted, such as “approachability”, “listening”, and “giving reassurance”, but in fact these skills are not to be underestimated. We all have library users who just seem to make difficulties for us by not bringing library materials back on time; but in fact, being disorganised about such things may be an early sign of a student generally “not coping”, and needing help. We would do well to remember this.

The other presentation, by our host, Charity Dove, looked at the current situation in regard to Cardiff University’s music library. Here we are again: an institution deciding that it needs to downsize quickly, and an organisational culture with evolving priorities. Charity spoke very eloquently on the challenges of the situation, which is fluid and developing rapidly. Again, lots more that I could say but a blogpost really isn’t the place. It was clear that there was a great degree of sympathy, and, indeed, empathy from those in the room. Change management isn’t easy, but there are ways forward, and Charity shared her top tips for enabling the stakeholders on all sides of the equation to move towards an outcome that meets as many needs as possible.

It was good to revisit Cardiff (location of a Branch ASW not that many years ago), and I hope it won’t be long before Courses and Education turns up there again. Huge thanks to Charity for hosting, and to colleagues at the RWCMD for my tour in the morning. 

John Wagstaff, Christ’s College Cambridge