June 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 3 »

Marking Time: Orchestral Librarians at Work

June 1, 2015
Christine Watkins, Illinois Library Association

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Music Library is literally underneath the stage, tucked away on the lower level of Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. All those notes that you hear soaring and wafting their way to your place in the audience start out as little black marks on cream-colored paper, stored on the library shelves. Thousands of musical scores as well as the separate parts for each individual instrument are organized by composer. When the next season is announced, the orchestra librarians review the holdings to see what they already own, which scores and parts they may need to buy or rent from music publishers.

But if you think there’s nothing more to it than to take the music off the shelves and deliver it to the music stands upstairs, you’re mistaken. There’s a lot to learn about the role of orchestral librarians—they are not, in fact, librarians in the typical sense of the term. They do not hold library degrees, and they are not even very similar to what we would think of as a “music” librarian, someone who manages a collection that includes books, recordings, and any number of things related to the study of music, as well as performance.


They are, in short, the keepers of the score, which goes far beyond just making sure the orchestra has the right ones on hand. The scores—and parts—are carefully reviewed for any errors in notation: a wrong note, a missing measure, or mark of some sort. The review—a kind of proofreading—includes comparing the parts to the score, to make sure nothing’s been lost. And after review, there’s a kind of copy-editing—marking up the parts for things like when the strings move their bows up or down or when to turn the page, so everything happens in unison, seemingly without effort.

The librarians attend rehearsal, and make note of anything that might need their attention. Rehearsal time is precious, and the goal is to make sure the music is clearly marked ahead of time. Peter Conover, one of three CSO librarians, sums it up: “Our expertise involves the preparation of materials for use in performance.

Although we are called librarians, in truth we are really more musicians. Most of us trained as performing musicians, and since there are relatively few opportunities to formally train as an orchestra librarian, internships or apprenticeships have traditionally been the way we’ve learned our skills.”

Founded in 1893,  the Major Orchestra Librarians Association has grown from an organization of about twenty-five orchestra librarians located mostly on the east coast of the United States to a membership of more than 270 institutions from around the world.”

This is where MOLA—the Major Orchestra Librarians Association—can come in handy. Founded in 1893, it has grown from an organization of about twenty-five orchestra librarians located mostly on the east coast of the United States to a membership of more than 270 institutions from around the world. In addition to being a forum for experienced orchestra librarians, it can also be a resource for musicians who end up with responsibilities for managing the music, so to speak, with little or no experience.

Conover was a conservatory-trained bass player in an east coast orchestra, and got his start because the orchestra was willing to pay him an extra $50 per performance to mark up the music. He came to find the work interesting and rewarding, and somewhere along the line, made a career choice that led him to orchestras in Arizona and Texas before coming to Chicago

in 1998. His colleagues, Mark Swanson and Carole Keller, came by slightly different routes, though both are trained musicians. Swanson started out playing trombone, moved into arranging and copying music, and free-lanced his way to becoming a CSO librarian. Keller studied the cello and worked in the library of her college orchestra and after graduation got a job in the box office of the Minnesota Orchestra. When she heard there was an opening in the library, she jumped at the chance, and her college experience paid off. She moved on to become principal librarian for the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Canada, then joined the CSO in 2000.


One thing orchestra librarians have in common with the rest of the profession is a penchant for organization. Scores and parts are moved from the “general collection” to a series of shelves for the current season. Then as the performance approaches, the parts are marked and broken up into individual folders for each player. Those folders move to another shelving area, ready to be taken to the stage each night and placed on the music stands, first for rehearsals of that week’s program, then eventually for each performance.

Another is attention to detail, and patron preferences. Music for cellists, for example, may need to be slightly enlarged, because they are further away from their music stands than other players. Some musicians may want their parts scanned and sent to them electronically for practice. When asked the most important part of their job, a response on the MOLA website reads: “To have the right music in the right place at the right time.”

There are no fines for unreturned music, but it rarely disappears. The orchestra members know it’s in their own best interests for the music to be held in the library. As far as the decision to rent or buy, it depends on a number of factors. Works in the public domain, which include a large part of the classical repertoire,

are likely to be purchased. For works with current copyright restrictions, especially those that may be performed rarely or infrequently, renting from the publisher may be the only choice.

The collection doesn’t circulate, but besides traveling up to the stage at Symphony Center and some miles north for the orchestra’s summer season at Ravinia, it does go on tour. Along with all the pieces scheduled for the tour, the librarians are in charge of deciding what else should come along—anthems for countries they’re visiting, repertoire that’s appropriate if there’s a tragedy or death that occurs on the day of the concert, and a selection of encores, which can be unpredictable.

“Maestro Barenboim was challenging when it came to encores, he might ask for almost anything!” said Conover. “We were on tour in 2001 when the World Trade Center was hit,” adds Keller. “We had no idea what—or even if—we were going to play that night. We eventually did, but we added the Star-Spangled Banner at the beginning of the performance.”

In general, e-music doesn’t seem to have become as prevalent as e-books. Some smaller ensembles use or experiment with “electronic music stands,” but they are far from the norm for major orchestras. The complexity of the music, the number of players, the consequences of a glitch, and to some extent, the age of the players, all contribute to a strong preference for paper. “Paper is infallible and hard to improve on,” says Conover.

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