World Music in the Music Library

The primary role of the college music library has been to supply books, scores, and sound recordings supporting music department curricula. Music libraries have traditionally been collections of Western classical art music. The tools and methods used by librarians to deal with these collections make assumptions that music is written by an identifiable composer, that it may be notated in a printed score, and that the essence of a composition is immutable. As "World Musics" have come into the curriculum, either in new courses or as significant parts of existing courses, these types of music materials have increasingly come into the music library. The tools and methods for organizing Western art music may no longer be applicable to world music materials.

An initial problem is the definition of the term world music (or world musics). A review of the literature shows that it is a relatively recent term and one appearing in ever wider contexts. Only since 1989 has Music Index included the term, giving a cross reference directing us to see "ethnic music," "folk music", and "popular music-styles." During the past decade the number of entries cited in Music Index directly under "World Music" has continually increased and contains references to a wide variety of publications using the term. The Library of Congress Subject Headings first included "World Music" as a valid subject heading in the mid-1990s, and gives its definition as ". . . musical works combining traditional rhythms from around the world with elements of jazz and rock." So there are at least two distinct definitions for world music, one as an alternative for such terms as primitive, non-Western, ethnic, and folk music, and the other as a fusion of traditional ethnic musics with modern Western popular music.

Reference questions pertaining to world music have become more numerous in recent years as university and public school curricula have emphasized "cultural diversity." Courses in music theory and history include sections on non-Western music. Music education majors now look for examples of ethnic musics to teach in the classroom. Public librarians face ever greater numbers of patrons demanding music from their own ethnic cultures. Answering reference questions in this area poses significant challenges, since answers may not appear in standard sources. It behooves the music librarian to gain at least a basic knowledge of world music and the history, theory, and terminology of ethnomusicology.

Purchasing world music materials has become easier in recent years because of a proliferation of vendors and easy access through the Internet. Sound recordings are widely available and show the largest variety. Books in specialized areas of ethnomusicology have become more numerous, and foreign materials dealing with their own musics are more readily available. We see more scores written in indigenous musical notations, as well as performance methods in either Western or indigenous notations. But how can music librarians go about making intelligent collection decisions from this mass of materials? Librarians have to know the needs of their patrons and how this music is used in the curriculum. They should also seek the advice of those teaching from the collection. Finally, to those who teach world music: Please tell your music librarian what needs to be in the collection!

Perhaps the greatest challenge posed by world music is in cataloging. We make certain basic assumptions when cataloging Western art music: that it exists in written form and can be identified in an historical context from written sources; that the composer serves as the primary point of access; that uniform titles can be created according to what is found in written sources; and that subject access and classification rest on standard forms. World music is less likely to exist in a written form, since it may be passed on in aural tradition. The composer may be unknown, thus the performer, informant, or even the collector may have to serve as primary points of access. Music in aural tradition may vary with each performer and even with each performance. The title of a work may exist in variant forms and may not be found in any written source. Finally, world music frequently exists in forms and genres which cannot be identified in written sources, thus subject access and classification may require unconventional means.

The Music Library Association (MLA) established a "World Music Roundtable" which convenes each year at its annual meeting to assist music librarians in coping with the problems of world music. The MLA Technical Report Series has included volumes dealing with cataloging recordings of non-Western music (Recordings of Non-Western Music: Subject and Added Entry Access, Judith Kaufman, MLA, 1977) and with all aspects of world music in the music library (World Music in Music Libraries, Carl Rahkonen, ed., MLA Technical Report Series No. 24, 1994).

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

Carl Rahkonen

Carl Rahkonen is a Music Librarian and Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  He is co-author of Vladimir Ussachevsky: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood, 1999); editor of World Music in Music Libraries (Music Library Assoc., 1994); contributor to the New Grove 2nd ed. and the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music.  He was named the 2011 Finlandia Foundation “Lecturer of the Year” doing a presentation on “The Finnish American Musical Journey” around the country. His research interests have included European-American fiddling traditions, polka bands in Pennsylvania, Estonian kannel players in Baltimore, and most recently Scandinavian and Finnish-American musicians of the Upper Midwest.   He is a practicing musician who plays classical, popular and folk music in a variety of ensembles.

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