Don’t Take My Vinyl Away

Just a few short years ago, I daily played more music on vinyl than on CD or MP3. Alas, a second child and an obstructing third bathroom largely put the kibosh on my record spinning and relegated my wife and I to the kitchen. That’s where the iPod is docked on the iHome radio, which the second child has now broken. Of course, I appreciate the fact that I can neatly tuck 160GB of music between the coffee maker and the bread box, but I’m a music snob. Not an audiophile, but a snob. And music snobs can be rather particular about format.

For many listeners, a great attraction to many vinyl albums is the fact that the albums are in the format for which they were recorded. A lot of audio purists and vinyl junkies would argue that music simply sounds best in its original format, despite the cleaner sound of subsequent remixed or digitized versions. They want to gently drop the needle and hear the calm crackle that precludes Track 1. It’s the preference of the listener–of the user. Call it audiophilia or nostalgia, but as far as the library is concerned, it’s all part of the user experience.

Hardly portable, shelved LPs measure a square foot. Skinny packaging is susceptible to acid and harsh wear and barely protects the fragile wax disc. The record itself is easily broken or gouged. Spinning under needlepoint, its integrity is easily compromised. 45s are a smaller version of the same problem child. Vinyl albums have been a fringe product for 25 years. Yet they don’t go away. People still seek old vinyl in droves. Meanwhile, demand for new vinyl has increased steadily for several years.

It’s notable that new vinyl sales posted a 14% gain in 2010 and that the National Association of Recording Merchandisers projects another huge growth in vinyl sales this year. The colossal rise of digital music outlets (iTunes, Amazon) and widespread access to shared and pirated music (BitTorrent, Mediafire) has forced many vinyl-selling independent music stores out of business. Vinyl distributors have had to seek new outlets and, somehow, it would appear they’ve succeeded. Yet, while new vinyl has found its way to nontraditional retail outlets like Urban Outfitters, I wonder how much of it has ended up in the library.

Music, perhaps more than any other product, occupies a tremendous portion of the long tail. Music stranded in dated formats is largely lost to each new generation of listeners and music seekers. Like magnetic tapes, vinyl records are a dated format–not an obsolete one. These materials should be collected, curated, and shared.

While it’s been the trend in public libraries to move or trash non-digital media, an increasing number of libraries, sensing the rising demand, have established collections of new vinyl. In January, the Grandview Heights Public Library, in Columbus, reintroduced new vinyl to their collection. Partnering with local record shops, they proceeded cautiously with a modest 30 titles and an interesting method of circulation.

With any collection, there are going to be dilemmas. Different perspectives and levels of expertise yield different results in a collection’s maintenance. But I think we should all agree that dated media should never be discounted as clutter, deaccessioned, and rocketed toward the sun. We’re all sensitive to issues of space, but we should also agree that it’s simply unacceptable that unappraised collections are quietly placed out back with the trash. In my silly world, these collections are either curated by the right AV librarian–one versed in dated formats and niche markets–or conveyed to another location via sale or gift. Librarians are not omnipotent. In a perfect world, we all have knowledgeable AV librarians making decisions regarding whether an album or VHS tape stays or goes. Unfortunately, the “accidental” AV librarian my not always be hep to the nuances of media preservation.

Most important to me about audio format is preservation, at least where libraries are concerned. If you haven’t seen this video, you might give it a look now. It features Brian Schottlaender, University Librarian at the University of California, San Diego, using some records from his personal collection to express his views on vinyl preservation.

There are countless films in special collections and storage facilities around the world that never made the digital leap. Many exist only on celluloid reels, hiding from acids in those gigantic film cans, never reproduced on VHS. In turn, many VHS films were never transferred to DVD, and most DVDs have yet to be streamed by the likes of Netflix, who, believe it or not, don’t have everything. In terms of preservation, how significant do those reels and VHS tapes look now? Sure, many of those materials are throwaway titles that met modest circulation at best. Yet even rare AV gems are left to collect dust for one reason or another, and many items have earned the longevity of a modern format. Some VHS and more rare celluloid reels are surely testaments to the arts of film and screenwriting. Whatever the case, that’s a lot of material left behind by evolving technologies.

Music formats have mutated in a similar pattern. Many vinyl records were never manufactured on cassette. Likewise, so many tapes, the format of choice for several generations of independent bands and musicians, never benefited from digitization and manufacture on CD, let alone downloadability. (Have you begun to see your next special media collection project?) But if we know nothing else at all about dated media formats, librarians who maintain media collections should be sensitive to this history, to the technological dead ends in media production, and apply it to their philosophies of collection maintenance and preservation.

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Who Wants Music?

I’m curious about who is seeking music in your library and what they’re looking for. If you have stats, please share. My questions are:

1. Do more music seekers want popular music or commercial alternatives (indie, folk, etc.)?

2. What’s the ratio of MP3 seekers to CD seekers?

3. Do you carry vinyl or cassettes? How well does your collection circulate?