Libraries that rock: Guitar-lending program in Grand County leads national trend
March 5, 2015
Books may still be libraries' bread and butter, but today's libraries also lend unusual items that may not fit on the shelves of tradition.
In Perham, Minn., cardholders can check out lifejackets, a four-person tent and a camp stove. Community members in Great Bend, Kan., don't have to invest in a new cake pan — their library checks out over 100 different shapes and sizes for their baking customers. Residents of Oakland, Calif., needing tools for a DIY project need look no further than their local library's shelves.
Here in Grand County, guitars, basses, drums and drum pads and keyboards check out for three weeks at a time, just like books.
In spite of the shushing stereotype, the library administration feels musical instruments have a place in the collection because they reflect the interests of the people who live here.
"Music is such an important part of our community. There are so many talented musicians here who play truly for the love of it. 'Check Out the Music' reflects something special about Grand County," said Stephanie Ralph, executive director of the Grand County Library District.
"People are so surprised that we have the instruments available. And usually very excited," said Joy McCoy, a library services specialist at the Fraser Valley branch. McCoy has been a key player in the program because of her own passion for music. She repairs broken strings, finds replacement cords for amplifiers, and promotes the program to area youth.
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Grand County Libraries have been have been checking out instruments since the innovative "Check Out the Music" program launched in 2006. Recently, other libraries from Ohio to Kentucky are creating instrument lending programs of their own.
At the root of it all is John Catt, founding board member of the Grand County Blues Society, whose No. 1 priority is getting musical instruments into the hands of kids who may not otherwise ever pluck a string or twirl a wheelie bar.
His Blue Star Connection nonprofit organization brings instruments to children facing debilitating diseases and other hardships. They have brought instruments to hospital music therapy programs and homeless shelters with teen populations.
But libraries were his first avenue to reach kids who might have that passion for music, but lack exposure to it.
"Check Out the Music is a brilliant program. Parents think, 'I'm going to get my kid an electric guitar' before they know how dang loud it is. So it is kind of a testing ground to see if the kid has an aptitude for music and see if the home can tolerate the noise," said Catt.
The Licking County Library in Newark, Ohio, started checking out guitars in December 2014. Next on tap is the Daviess County Public Library in Owensboro, Ky.
McCoy is aware of four or five other public libraries that already offer a similar service. Some have called her to seek advice on how to start.
"They've had a lot of questions about how it works here. I am happy to share what we've learned to make it easier for them to get it going at their libraries," she said.
Some librarians, like Teen Services Assistant Barbary Sanderson at the Licking County Library in Ohio, didn't know about Grand County's "Check Out the Music" until after they came up with the idea on their own.
Sanderson was shopping at a local guitar store when the idea struck. She presented it to her library board, which was looking for innovative ways to serve the community. Six months later they have six acoustic guitars checking out, two electric guitars with amplifiers being cataloged (courtesy of Blue Star Connection), and plans to expand the popular program to include ukuleles.
The program is so popular that the guitars have either been checked out or on hold since they became available. Sanderson barely sees them long enough to give them a quick tune before they are on to the next customer.
"To invest in an instrument like that is so costly," said Sanderson. "Now our patrons can try it out and bring it back without the risk. And the actual cost to the library is about the same as a handful of books or DVDs."
Musical instruments are a hefty investment for musicians just beginning to play. A new low-end acoustic guitar starts at about $120 to $300 at most online retailers. Libraries can relieve the pressure to make a big purchase by offering a "try before you buy" option.
"It helps families decide whether they want to invest in an instrument. And it helps kiddos that want to learn. It gives them a free chance to develop a new talent," said McCoy
Sanderson and McCoy both stress the importance of a local music partner like the guitar store and the Blues Society, respectively, to help acquire and repair the instruments, and assist with related programming.
James Blanton, director of the Daviess County Public Library in Owensboro, Ky., found that partner in Larry Kirk, the owner of a local restaurant/music venue called The Miller House. Kirk is involved with the Blue Star Connection and learned that Catt could get guitars into libraries. Catt did better than that: guitars, a banjo, and a mandolin were all delivered this month.
"Of course I was thrilled to offer that kind of program here," said Blanton. "This is a very musical community."
Owensboro is in eastern Kentucky, an area known as the home of bluegrass music. Blanton has plans to invite local musicians in to launch the program as well as offer live acoustic music regularly. Likewise, Sanderson is partnering with the same guitar shop where her inspiration struck to offer guitar classes in Licking County.
Here in Grand County, Catt hopes to keep the program on the radar, especially as new people come into the community.
"We were very lucky to have given this birth and kept it going. I think we need to reintroduce it — we have a bunch of new people in the community who can benefit from these instruments," he said.
GCLD's Ralph is proud that a small, rural library district was on the forefront of a trend like this one.
"One of the things about rural libraries is that we can reflect and respond to our local organizations. We help one another. It makes living up here so much richer," she said.
Library cards are free to all Grand County residents and property owners. Check http://www.gcld.org for library hours and to discover other unusual items available for check-out.