An exceptionally rich program at this year’s (online) conference of the Music Library Association – we met jointly with the Theatre Library Association (some very good sessions co-presented by members of both organizations), and we had an EDI conference theme.
The opening plenary addressed anti-racist performing arts librarianship. While the performing arts have historically been one of the few fields where persons of color could “seek opportunity and dialog,” most of our schools were founded on nineteenth-century northern European principles, emphasizing notated music, fixed praxis, and ways of hearing, moving, etc. that excluded other traditions. Dwandalyn Reece of the National Museum of African American History and Culture described how museums and allied institutions “need to seek new ways of doing our work” and “making materials accessible in many different ways”: not just preservation but community building; curators and catalogers, whose work was traditionally done in isolation, now partnering with community members in how materials are selected, displayed, and their stories told; navigating issues surrounding materials that may be offensive or triggering, and differences in institutional and community views of access and preservation.
Another session described the role of the performing arts in the LGBTQI+ community. A colleague from Ohio State introduced us to Columbus’ Evolution Theatre Company, placing it in a long and venerable tradition of gay and lesbian theatre, including the Cafe Cino, Theatre Rhinoceros, and WOW (Women One World) Cafe. There is also a long-standing gay and lesbian choral movement: a colleague from Vanderbilt described Nashville in Harmony‘s collaboration with local poets and artists in Nashville’s rich music scene, and the importance of youth choruses in helping young people work through questions of identity and presentation.
EDI of another sort was addressed in a session on metadata accessibility – not in the usual UX context, but for library staff who deal with accessibility issues in their work. We learned about a speech recognition software called Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which happens to work well with OCLC’s cataloging client; a study that tested library automated systems against WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (Alma is designed to support screen readers, but was found to have limited navigability with mobile devices); and helpful tips on how to format your staff’s procedural documentation for optimum accessibility. An interesting discussion about screen readers and punctuation: the reading software tends to start running faster and faster when it doesn’t encounter any punctuation – an unforeseen challenge for recent initiatives aimed at minimizing or eliminating punctuation in library catalogs to facilitate machine manipulation.
One session re-visited the ACRL Framework, exploring the concept of authority in music. As in other disciplines,Western tradition places authority in the notated score – a one-way communication from composer to performer to audience. Responding to the Framework’s definition of authority as “constructed and contextual,” one colleague proposes treating music as a verb – “musicking.” This better reflects the roles of all parties involved – creators, performers, audiences, scholars – as well as the social context. It broadens the scope of research considerably, to a frightening degree for some students. To help them work through the greater demands for critical and interdisciplinary thinking, of tracking down lesser-known resources, and avoiding losing focus on their own research needs, she uses visualization techniques, asking students to draw, map, or storyboard their research process.
A very similar solution was reached by two colleagues from Furman (theatre and music, respectively) who co-teach a course on ballet history research. In the art of movement, few notated sources exist, and the discipline relies heavily on non-print sources – a research environment many students are unfamiliar with. The scholarly conversation has traditionally privileged praxis (major productions, the prima ballerina, Russian classicism, etc.), and there are few topical studies of individual ballets to offer students guidance. Again, the instructors ask students to broaden their lens to embrace the social context – using a ballerina’s biography as an opportunity to study gender and performance; or historical productions to explore techniques of borrowing and intertextuality. Both dance and music students take this course, and in such a context a good deal of peer-to-peer instruction naturally occurs.
Colleagues at Indiana University put together a dream team – a music librarian, a UX specialist, and an anthropology subject specialist – for a study of barriers music students face when searching. Twenty-seven students met individually with the UX specialist, who observed them as they performed 6 test searches, followed by an interview with the team. The searches covered scores, recordings, and secondary literature: for each, one search specified both the topic and the tool to be used; another specified the topic, but allowed the student to pick their tool. Difficulties observed included: understanding terms used in the library catalog; failing to read the catalog record closely enough to identify the needed item; misunderstandings of what an article is (many students seemed to view it as an umbrella term, referring to such things as dissertations and recordings as “a type of article”); forgetting which databases are available on the library’s website, arriving at them instead via Google; and databases that aren’t very intuitive at indicating the language of an item (for instance, when an English-only filter continues to show foreign-language literature, because an English abstract is present; students also tended to interpret “abstract” as meaning that the whole work was available in both languages); and “overthinking” a search, leading them away from an appropriate resource. Lots of material for improving future LI!