An Academic Librarian’s “Fine Romance” with Programming

An email message on the Virginia Library Association discussion list hit my inbox back in November 2010 with the subject line, “Traveling exhibitions celebrate life and work of great Jewish artists.” The announcement from the ALA Public Programs Office detailed how interested libraries could apply to host one of these ready-made exhibits focusing on the author Maurice Sendak, the poet Emma Lazarus, or the Jewish songwriters of the early twentieth century. I forwarded the email to the development director at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Libraries, suggesting that it sounded like a wonderful opportunity for us. It turns out that I was about to be given an opportunity myself—the chance to organize the application process, and, if successful, to act as program director for the exhibit and accompanying events.

An academic environment provides a pool of talent to create events in conjunction with such an exhibit as well as an audience interested in attending such events.  Given the number of faculty in our School of the Arts, School of Education, Center for Judaic Studies, and our humanities and sciences programs, I was confident that we would be able to assemble a variety of events to showcase the University and the Libraries.

Our final schedule of events to coincide with our hosting of the exhibit “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs 1910–1965” included:

  • an opening night reception and lecture presented by Dr. Jack Spiro, head of the Center for Judaic Studies, titled “One Singular Sensation: The American Jew and the Musical Theatre”;
  • a live performance of Klezmer music by local musicians Klezm’Or’Ami’m, titled “America’s Music: Funny, You Don’t Sound Jewish,” at one of our partner sites, the Richmond Public Library, detailing the influence of traditional Jewish music, both religious and secular, on the American Songbook;
  • a lecture by a professor in the department of music, Dr. Patrick Smith, titled “Grasping Gershwin: The Man Behind the Music”; and
  • an acoustic performance in the lobby of our library on Valentine’s Day by student musicians Gianna Barone (vocals) and Denver Walker (guitar) of love songs from the American Songbook.

In addition to these live events, our technology team created a website full of information pertaining to the exhibit, which is also accessible on mobile devices. As you might expect from an academic library, there is a research guide to help visitors find materials (books, DVDs and CDs, websites) about Jewish songwriters in our collection, as well as in local public libraries. We have created an audio playlist featuring songs from our collection, via Alexander Street Press, which offers these materials in an online streaming format for students, faculty, and staff at VCU. Visitors from the greater Richmond community would not normally be able to access these materials, because of our licensing agreements; however, individuals visiting the library in person can log into our guest access computers to listen and view these audio and video selections. A library staff member in the Media and Reserve Services department narrated an audio tour of the exhibit itself, so that anyone who is interested can listen to an unabridged reading of the exhibit text. The audio files are available through our iTunes University account, as well as straight from our website.

With the support of my colleagues at VCU Libraries, I learned how to do the kind of work that programming librarians do day in and day out. For a circulation librarian, though, this was a fascinating new world of contracts and honorariums, room scheduling, catering, performance rights, and promotional outreach to student media. I had never been interviewed before, and I found myself singing the opening lines to the song “A Fine Romance” (as sung by Fred Astaire, which I learned by heart, just in case the opportunity arose) as a way of explaining the name of the exhibit itself. How will my boss keep me down in Circulation, now that I’ve learned how fun it is to be a programming librarian?

Editor’s Note: Find out more about the ALA Public Programs Office’s programs—current, past, and upcoming.