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CPL’s Music Information Center turns 100

Wed, Feb 26, 2014

Patronized by Chicago citizens since its inception, the century-old Music Information Center of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) features countless cultural artifacts including Louis Armstrong’s musician’s union membership card and a John Lennon autograph.

John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker, shown here at the Long Beach Blues Festival in August 1987, is among those whose recordings are in the Chicago Blues Archives of the Chicago Public Library Music Information Center. (Wikimedia)

Former librarian Richard Schwegel, now director of the performing arts library at Roosevelt University, led a January 17 presentation on the collection’s 100-year history along with fellow former librarian and current director of UW-Madison’s Mills Music Library Jeannette Casey; Alain Wolfe, librarian in the Fine Arts Division and Music section for 36 years and Christopher Popa, a former radio broadcaster and current librarian.

Schwegel said that while library officials had discussed the need for a collection devoted to music since CPL’s founding after the Chicago Fire, it wasn’t until 1914 that chief librarian Henry Legler pursued his goal of giving “battle to the influence of ragtime music,” by providing the public with a more refined alternative. Legler purchased 75 opera scores and displayed them at the newly opened Music Information Center in an effort to “improve the taste of Chicagoans.” He also employed respected critics to select further additions to the library’s holdings.

This “misguided attempt” to influence the public’s musical interests was “not without its drawbacks for the future of the collection,” Schwegel noted. In 1940, the library rejected the offer of local ragtime pianist Walter Harding for his collection of sheet music from the genre. What officials did not know was that during the Depression, Harding had been able to amass a collection of popular songbooks and miscellanies. Harding never forgot CPL’s slight. Before his death in 1972, he bequeathed his collection to the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University, which calls it the largest collection of 17th and 18th century music and verse in the world. Its 900 boxes were flown to England on two chartered aircraft.

Today, the Chicago Public Library is not making the same mistake of disparaging anyone’s collections. CPL occasionally accepts materials from private donors. In the process, its music department has grown from its original 2,000 titles to over 400,000 volumes, making it the largest such collection in a municipal public library in the U.S., as Schwegel stated in the presentation. He also called the library “the first to offer practice rooms, the first to have internet access, the first to have a recording studio for the public and to recognize the importance of the study of popular music.”

Buddy Guy

Recordings by Buddy Guy, shown here at the Vitoria Gasteiz Jazz Festival in July 2010, are among those in Chicago Blues Archives of the Chicago Public Library Music Information Center. (Wikimedia Commons)

CPL’s librarians are assigned subject areas, and read book reviews and industry publications so that they learn what is important to have in the library’s collection. “We generally do seek them out through a particular vendor,” Popa said. Among items in its collection:

* The Chicago Blues Archives, started in 1981 with a gift from radio station WXRT. The collection includes live recordings with Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal performing in Chicago clubs. There are also audio and visual performances from Chicago Blues Festivals and tapes from Soundstage, WTTW public television’s live music program of the 1970s, including an episode with Muddy Waters.

* The Jubilee Showcase Gospel Music Video Collection, from the Sunday morning WLS-TV show that ran between 1961 and 1984. Thanks to host/producer Sid Ordower, more than 100 videotapes include the Dorothy Norwood Singers, the Norfleet Brothers and Fountain of Life Baptist Church, whose pastor, the Rev. Marvin J. Yancy, had been the Grammy-winning musical producer and husband of Natalie Cole.

* The Martin & Morris Gospel Sheet Music Collection, nearly the entire catalog of the nation’s oldest black gospel music publishing company, which operated from 1940 into the 1980s. Its owners were Sallie Martin (who had worked with Thomas Dorsey and toured the U.S. and Europe) and Kenneth Morris.

The collections have grown vastly since 1970, when the music department mounted a greater effort to engage in “active involvement with the local music scene,” as Schwegel noted. “We were very early on in getting house music, before anyone else collected house music, when house music was starting to come and Chicago was obviously a very important location for house music. So we recognized that, and we went after a lot of specialized material on that.”

The collection housed on the 8th floor of the Harold Washington Library at 400 S. State St. increasingly attracts the attention of tourists. Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti found a score there for his performance before Pope John Paul II on his visit to Chicago in 1979. In order to protect the holdings, researchers must register and sign a daily log. Archival material is brought out of the stacks by staff; it must be used in a designated area and it does not circulate.

Digitization is important for one-of-a-kind items such as Louis Armstrong’s signed union card, Casey said. “It’s a question of balance. You want to give people access to it so they can use it and understand more about the music or appreciate it or just enjoy it. On the other hand, libraries also have a responsibility to preserve things so that they’ll be accessible to people in the future.” Armstrong’s card is part of the library’s Chicago Federation of Musicians file, which has information on less famous people as well. Staff often can find death notices or information on the instrument that someone’s uncle played – information that could not be found elsewhere, Casey said.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong played in Chicago in the 1920s and his Chicago Federation of Musicians card is contained in Music Information Center collection, which also contains work histories for lesser known musicians. (Wikimedia)

Always more than a dusty archive, the Music department has been innovative in featuring contemporary genres, and offering patrons access to not only materials but even spaces to enjoy and create music themselves.

Local musician Henry Prince, 55, has been utilizing the Center’s Practice Rooms for several years. “You get an hour, show your ID, you don’t even need a library card, I didn’t know that at first myself,” he said. Prince also enjoys the library’s collection of records and books on music. “I’ve learned so much from reading liner notes and checking out the music on the shelves…it’s a lot of history that you can learn from reading books that you won’t get from gossip columns because they don’t focus on facts, and they don’t focus on stuff that’s really interesting.” Prince called the Music Information Center “a wealth of knowledge…I love it up here man, this is like being in the playground for me.”

Michael Bryant, 56, of Englewood has also been using the Center since it first came to the Harold Washington Library Center. “Usually I’ll just listen to an album,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of good blues, country & western and old rock &roll records.” Bryant, who is currently employed in a kitchen as a busboy and dishwasher, usually finds his way to the collection twice a week. “I like to let the books stay here, because you know you get busy and you forget, so it’s better to let the books stay, but I definitely take time to read.”

The Music Information Center will continue to mark its centennial year with a variety of events over the coming months, including a March 14 performance called “Two Views of Love” by vocalist Susan Hoffman, who also works in the Business, Science and Technology Division of CPL. All of these commemorative occasions serve to honor and further promote what Schwegel called the “finest repository of Chicago’s music history.”

Thomas Fowkes
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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