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An Interview with Liza Vick, President of the Music Library Association

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Starting this month, Liza Vick takes the reins as president of the Music Library Association, the primary professional organization for music librarians in the United States. Vick, who is the head of the Penn Libraries’ Otto E. Albrecht Music Library and Eugene Ormandy Music Library and Media Center, has contributed significantly to the profession of music librarianship throughout her career, having served previously in a number of organizational leadership positions and as book review editor of publications like Notes, the Music Library Association’s quarterly journal. We recently sat down with her to talk about her career, the challenges and opportunities she is looking forward to tackling in this new position, and her hopes for music librarianship as a whole.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.


Let’s talk a little bit about the Music Library Association. What do they do and how do they support the profession?

MLA is the national organization for music librarians in the United States, much as the American Library Association represents all librarians in the US. We're also the US branch of the International Association of Music Libraries. The MLA serves the profession by advocating for music libraries as well as for the librarians and library staff who work in them. Its overarching mission is to “support, enhance, and preserve equitable access to the world’s musical heritage.” 

We are composed of more than 600 individual members who work in academic, public, conservatory, and performance libraries settings. We even have members who work in corporate libraries. It's a very warm, welcoming, and enthusiastic community of very committed professionals, many of whom, like me, are musicians themselves. 

We produce many publications and have tons of committees, working groups, and task forces that offer members professional services and help us do the business of the organization. We offer networking opportunities for early career members and students, including a career advisory service, resume review, and job placement services. We also have a really thriving community of music catalogers who contribute to global cooperative cataloging projects and help develop information standards. Our legislation and copyright experts advocate at the national level for issues at the heart of library interests, and our public services committees develop information literacy competency standards. 

We are also embarking upon a new cycle of strategic planning and pivoting to a combination of in-person and virtual annual meetings. Our most recent meeting is running throughout March and is a partnership with the Theatre Library Association. We hope to continue such partnerships.

 

What issues are of particular interest to the MLA right now?

Like many, many other organizations, we have become much more focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. In addition to posting an official statement on opposing racism and police brutality, we’ve implemented implicit bias training requirements for editors, special officers, and committee chairs (and members). We've long had a diversity committee and a diversity equity and inclusion sub committee, and they continue to be very, very active. 

Like the rest of librarianship, we are a predominantly white profession, and we are working hard to change that, including looking at our leadership structure and ways to overall diversify our membership and diversify our leadership structure all the way up to the top. 

But we need to do better. We’re all becoming more conscious of asking, how do we make our libraries, our association, our field, and our spaces more welcoming to everyone?

 

What originally brought you to music librarianship?

I'm a musician by training. I majored in flute performance at West Chester University down the road, and to make a long story short, I came to the realization that I wanted to change my career path. I eventually went to grad school at the University of Maryland, College Park for library science and ethnomusicology. 

When I finished all of my degrees, I got a job at the University of California, Irvine. The music collection there is integrated in the main library and includes all performing arts. I enjoyed UCI, but I really wanted to be in a branch music library, so I applied for and got a job at Harvard University’s Loeb Music Library. The job shifted a bit over the years; I served as head of public services, focusing on reference and instruction. I spent ten and a half years there and I really loved it. 

 

You became the head of Penn’s music library in 2016. What made you want to apply for the position? 

I'm from this area originally, and I was intrigued by the depth and breadth of the library's collections, including the special collections held by the Kislak Center. I was familiar with the Marian Anderson Collection, and the Philadelphia Orchestra collections really interested me because I grew up being a huge fan of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I also welcomed the chance to work with donors, develop exhibits, and manage fundraising initiatives.

 

Are there parts of Penn’s music collection that are of particular interest to you?

I have a master's in ethnomusicology, so the world music collection is near and dear to my heart. We have a substantial sound recording collection ranging from LPs to CDs, including the Smithsonian Folkways and UNESCO cultural heritage collections on CD. One of the programs that we support at Penn is the ethnomusicology PhD program, which is highly ranked in the United States. We've been building those collections for years, and I'm particularly proud of that.

We have an example of Tuvan throat singing from Central Asian in our collection of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. The ethnomusicologist Eduard Alekseyev recorded performances of this rare, cultural tradition, and I coincidentally had the opportunity to meet and work with him in a previous position. Relatedly, epic poetry traditions in Siberia are culturally endangered, and yet available on recordings like this, from Auvidis.

 

What is involved with being a music librarian?

Music library jobs range from leadership jobs like mine, to acquisitions and cataloging, to curation, digitization, and preservation. In small branch libraries, you might have a music library head who also does public services and/or technical services. In essence, music librarians are trained to do a wide variety of tasks, including special collections, preservation, and digital projects. Many music librarians, myself included, spend a substantial amount of time helping researchers and students discover material by holding research consultations and teaching classes.

The majority of music librarians work in academic libraries, but we also have a solid swath of public librarians in the Music Library Association who work in institutions ranging from Library of Congress, to the New York Public Library, to small local branches. In public libraries, staff work with the general clientele and collections, but they have music expertise. There are also music librarians who work with performance ensemble collections. Our profession includes library staff who hold library degrees, as well as those who do not. Regardless, they all have crucial expertise and help keep our libraries running.

Music librarians are necessary in the way that area studies or language specialists are necessary. In academic and conservatory libraries, faculty expect to have librarians who understand music notation and different kinds of music scores, and the literature, and the field. 

 

What are the challenges and opportunities associated with music libraries today?

Younger, contemporary composers often self-publish on personal websites and using services like SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Since the material isn’t readily available through traditional library vendors and publishers, we have to be vigilant and proactive about collecting important, emerging composers. I am starting to purchase innovative score packages that aggregate content from young, exciting composers. I also hope to continue strengthening our popular music sound recordings, but it’s impossible to buy everything, and services like Spotify aren’t available for library purchase. Therefore I still buy CDs, and I keep track of Grammy awards and interesting independent labels and artists.

In recent years, many music library branches have been consolidated or closed, so advocacy is part of the mission of the MLA and many individual libraries. MLA and its members understand that we must constantly prove our value as spaces for discovery and browsing, and even performance! At Penn, we have concerts in the physical and virtual spaces, and one took place in a student-curated exhibit of Persian flutes. As we move forward, we must continue to find ways to celebrate and share what makes music libraries so unique.

Learn more about the Penn Libraries music collections.

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