Volume 14 Number 4
[Editor's note: Katherine mentions that the collection is "visually intriguing". One loss of the digital music age is the album cover. Fine arts programs, courses in graphic design, perhaps those studying cultural anthropology might benefit by perusing these covers.]
The Van Wagenen Library at SUNY Cobleskill like many academic libraries has odd ducks in its collection. Cat skeletons go on reserve for the anatomy classes; texts on robotic milking make the acquisitions list. Sometimes it's the format, not the content, that makes an item unusual; the anachronism that is our record collection is the most obvious example of these.
The library spent most of the past four years undergoing renovations. The goal being to bring us out of 1973 and into the 21st century a bit more emphatically than with just a new paint job would. When the construction was done, we moved the record collection - some of which is straight out of 1973 - into one of the most visible locations on the main floor.
The library's record collection was mostly acquired prior to 1990 - which means it predates all the librarians currently on staff. This cutoff date also means that much of the collection is physically older than most of our students. The original rationales for acquiring an audio collection can only be guessed at, but part of it is likely the same reason the library has a collection of popular books: offering a few entertainment and relaxation options to the campus community. At the same time, some of the records in the collection could easily support various programs on campus - early childhood education, wildlife, liberal arts, and others. In addition, teaching cultural competence is part of the College's strategic plan, and many of the records in the collection could in some way support that initiative.
Compared to our other audio-visual collections, the record collection is fairly large; we have 1,229 titles in LP record format, compared to 1,982 videos,etc in all formats (DVD, VHS, and filmstrip). Although the video recordings are integrated in the collection, the record and compact disc collections are both shelved as discrete units. The CD collection is cataloged in the Library of Congress system, but all of the records are cataloged using the ANSCR classification system (Alpha-Numeric System for Classification of Recordings). Although ANSCR allows for fairly narrow groupings, to get an idea of the overall composition of the collection, several categories have been amalgamated here: the classical collection, recordings for children, and the spoken word titles.
The first section I want to highlight, however, is not hugely represented. About 2% of the collection is classified as "electronic or mechanical music". Included are relatively early works, such as those by Isao Tomita, in a genre that evolved into today's dance and electronica music. The presence of these titles in the collection is something of a curiosity, but it reflects the breadth of the collection.
The classical collection (23% of the titles, including orchestral, operatic, and other similar works) is rather standard; nothing in it jumped out as "Hey, I'm cool and unusual!" All the big names are accounted for: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, the Carmina Burana, the requisite E. Power Biggs recordings, and some George Winston for a splash of more recent piano works. Many albums are instructional in nature, with music representative of a particular time period, form, or instrument. A few of the albums are interesting for their local connection: the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Schoharie Valley Concert Band.
Overall, the popular music sections account for 28% of the collection, and even taken individually, some of the sections are fairly large: just the rock, rhythm, and blues section is a little over 8% of the collection. If there is an overall description for this subset, it would be, almost indisputably, eclectic. The albums are generally popular: the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Van Halen's 1984; but the gamut of the rock genre from the 1950s to the 1980s is there: Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper, Chicago, the Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, the Who. Although not every popular group or artist is represented (we are noticeably lacking in Pink Floyd albums), what we do have tends to be well known for its time period.
The jazz section is even larger than the rock section - over 12% of the collection as a whole - and is similarly eclectic. In some ways this part of the collection is like name-dropping; the greats of the first seventy or eighty years of jazz are well represented by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and many more. There's a dozen or so collected works which focus, to a greater or lesser degree, on the development and history of jazz. Although the rock collection has only one or two albums for most of the artists represented there, the jazz section has more incidences of having half a dozen albums by a well-known musician or group.
What we don't have a lot of - which surprises me, between our agriculture programs and my having grown up in a farming community - is country music. Whether it was the mood of the campus at the time the collection was being built or taste of the selectors, or simply the difference between rural New York and rural Indiana, only 2% of the collection is classified as country/western.
The spoken word sections in total make up a surprisingly large part of the collection - about 17%. Like the rest of the collection, the offerings vary widely. Radio offerings include Laurel & Hardy and complete episodes of the Green Hornet. The poetry collection is a fairly large part of these sections, and it includes recordings of Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, and T. S. Eliot, among others. The prose options are equally intriguing: Leonard Nimoy reading Ray Bradbury; Tolkien reading from his works. A section of historical recordings (famous speeches, oral history, documentary recordings) could be useful in history or communications classes.
The recordings for children make up about 13% of the collection. Included are many interesting titles that could still be useful to our early childhood programs: recordings of award-winning and well-known children's literature (A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, James and the Giant Peach, The Velveteen Rabbit, Beatrix Potter's works), songs and rhymes for finger plays, children's songs, and others. Several items in the small soundtrack section complement this area: The Muppet Movie, Follow that Bird.
Among the other recordings still useful to the College's academic programs is a small collection of frog, bird, and insect sounds. The wildlife programs routinely use recordings in some of their classes. Folk and traditional music, both American and international, make up over 9% of the collection, and several of the recordings in that section could complement the College's minor in Native American studies.
So, what kind of use does the collection get? Not much. Since we moved it to its most recent location, there have been comments ("You've got records? Since when? Can I check them out?"). A dearth of record players on campus is probably hindering its use. The library acquired a new record player around 2007 to replace a long-dead unit; it's one of the newer ones that connects to a computer and can convert tracks to digital formats. Now that the collection is more visible, we're exploring other options for making them actually usable by our patrons. USB units can be had for as little as $30, and other stand-alone units don't cost much more.
Why keep the records? Why not switch to more CDs? Keeping versus weeding the record collection has been discussed in recent years. But unlike, for instance, the VHS tapes we still have in the collection, the records, by and large, don't degrade just by sitting on the shelf. Some of the library's VHS tapes have reached the age that they are so old that they no longer play, or at least not understandably, and we handle those as they crop up. But when considering which of our older media formats to update - VHS or the records - the VHS tapes generally will win. Unlike our audio collections, our video collections are actively used. Based on usage and With a limited budget, DVDs are generally a better use of the library's money than CDs.
These aren't necessarily arguments for keeping the records, but paltry CD circulations also don't argue for replacing the records with CDs. What it does suggest is that physical audio formats are already dead for our students. The collection is visually intriguing, and the shelving accommodates displays of other materials alongside them. Their content is still good; although tangential to many programs. The children's and the spoken word recordings especially still have some relevance to the curriculum. One day the record collection will go away, other than whatever the library decides to keep in the historical collection, but for now, while the content is still potentially useful, we'd like it to be usable.