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The threat to public music libraries – why should we care?

Music libraries or music sets services are resources within public libraries which allow users to borrow (or hire at modest fees) multiple copies of scores or whole orchestral sets to be used for rehearsals and performances.

Leisure-time music groups such as Making Music’s 3,300+ members, usually just about break even, so they have to keep costs to a minimum, including the costs of necessary sheet music.

Sheet music is available to these groups from three sources. Free resources include borrowing from other groups, (Making Music facilitates that for members) or printing off copyright-free material from ISMLP or similar. Public libraries represent another affordable source of sheet music, particularly when combined with the immense resource provided by Inter Library Loans from other libraries. Finally, the most expensive source is hiring or buying music from music publishers.

In order to survive and still offer their members and audiences a varied and interesting programme, most groups use all of these music sources, but the system as a whole forms a type of ecology – if one part fails, the whole system is endangered.

The closure of music libraries has threatened the very viability of music group

As local authorities have implemented budget cuts, many have been reviewing library services and discovered that music libraries are expensive to run, are not a statutory service (unlike books or social care) and have ‘only’, say, 100 users.

However, those users are but the tip of the iceberg of the people benefitting from this facility – our statistics tell us there are an average 55 members in each music ensemble, so 100 users represent 5,500 participants. These groups organise an average 3.4 concerts a year to average audiences of 175. So the actual effect of the closure of a music library for 100 users could affect up to 65,000 people in a council’s area, all voters.

When we point this out to the elected councillors, they start to pay more attention.

But there are undeniably problems with music libraries

Music libraries are expensive to run: ‘book’ library IT systems cannot cope with them, so the whole process of lending out music has to be done manually, which is staff-intensive. Inter Library Loans also represent a huge cost to local library service. This is because most councils have not re-charged their actual costs for providing this service to users, so they have found themselves subsidizing it heavily, a problem given their current budget problems. To add to that cost, inter-library loans for music are staff-intensive. For each request from a given music group, emails have to be sent to numerous libraries to see if they have copies of a particular piece. This process continues until the full complement required by a choir is found, potentially from several libraries

What’s been happening?

As a result of all of the above, some local authorities have closed music library services and disposed of the music they had, sometimes, to a skip! Other authorities have removed access to Inter Library Loans. This means that however large a single collection, it will never cater for all the needs of their local groups. This drastically reduces a service’s usefulness.

Where music libraries still exist, specialized staff have been made redundant or have not been replaced, leaving ‘book’ librarians to manage them. The lack of specialist knowledge leads to a gradual deterioration of the stock, a consequent reduction in use from groups and eventual closure

What Making Music does

When we are alerted to a crisis, we seek a dialogue with the council officer responsible (usually the Head of Culture), aiming to help them find a solution which works locally and is cost neutral to the council. We have found ways of doing that.

If councils do not wish to enter into dialogue or their proposed action is imminent and represents a serious threat to the future of the resource and therefore to music groups in the area, we mobilise our contacts in order to influence the councillors who ultimately set the strategic direction for the council employees.

In the last few years, we are proud to have made a difference to music libraries in areas including Birmingham, Bristol, Dorset, Leicester, Nottingham, Norfolk, Somerset and Westminster.

You too can help!

Alert us to any library consultation in your area: email
Keep up to date with our campaigns by signing up to our e-newsletter.

Barbara Eifler, Chief Executive, Making Music