Collection Assessment Talk: What to Do with All that Space?

Jim Farrington, University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music, Sibley Library

In 1999, relatively early on in my tenure at the Sibley Music Library, I was tasked by then Librarian Mary Wallace Davidson to see how much of our shelf space we had used for the circulating books and scores collection. The library had opened a decade earlier, and even to the naked eye it seemed that we had plenty of shelf space. At the time, we had not used any top nor bottom shelf, and there were plenty of shelves barely used throughout the three floors. Trusty tape measure and calculator in hand, I set to the task of measuring empty shelf space.

The result of that study was a determination that Sibley’s shelf use stood at about 33% of capacity. One third. How many librarians listening to this can remember a time in your libraries when you still had twothirds of your available shelf space at your disposal? For this discussion I went back and re-measured everything, and found that…we’re at a different point that I’ll get to later. 

To see how we got that way, and what’s happened in the past 22 years, I want to take a short walk through Sibley’s history. The reason for this is that what we are now is the result of more than a century’s worth of dreams and work. We have a phrase that we use, “Sibley being Sibley.” That phrase encapsulates how we collectively see the library and its mission.

Let me start by introducing you to Hiram Sibley. If the name is unfamiliar to you, he was, at the end of the Civil War, the 6th richest man in America. How did he get that way? By investing in the 19th century internet: the telegraph. Here we see Samuel B. Morse, a friend of Sibley’s and inventor of this remarkable device. Sibley cobbled together several small telegraph companies and formed a corporation that you might have heard of: Western Union. He was also a local philanthropist, and at one time the county sheriff. The University of Rochester had only begun in the mid-19th century, and Mr. Sibley agreed to finance the building of its first library, Sibley Hall, shown here. 

And here we have an interior picture of Sibley Hall, and finally a photo of the building. Although the building is gone, the statuary that you see in the wall’s niches were saved, and are now found outside the university’s main library, although most have lost their arms over the years. Sibley Hall even had its own song, with words by K. P. Shedd, class of 1889, set to a vaguely recognizable tune. You are encouraged to stop this video and sing along, should the mood strike you.

His son, Hiram Watson Sibley, had little to do in life but spend his sizeable inheritance. He took a law degree from Columbia in 1871, but it’s not clear if he ever actually practiced. The elder Sibley died in 1888, at which time Hiram Watson became manager of the family estate, maintaining a relationship with the University. Among the things he funded were upgrades to Sibley Hall, including an electrical system and new HVAC. Imagine if donors today were so amenable to funding things like building infrastructure.


The music collection was initially the brainchild of a local organist, Elbert Newton. Mr. Newton was able to make the case that Rochester was blessed with an abundance of musical talent and interest in music. Rochester’s history of music making from the amateur to semi-professional and professional levels is a long and robust one, and this musical community deserved a library where they could immerse themselves in the study of music. Sibley agreed, although we don’t know precisely when, but he was able to secure for Newton the expertise of two of the foremost critics of the day, Philip Hale of the Boston Herald, and Henry Krehbiel of the NY Tribune. Together they were to “select and compile this elaborate library.” 

The collection is described as “an extensive and valuable one, comprises all the standard operas, all the classic and some modern oratorios; the songs of all the best classic and modern writers…folk songs of various countries; piano compositions of the best old and modern writers; all the standard sonatas for violin and piano, and ‘cello and piano, as well as many trios. Standard symphonic and quartette scores are included in miniature…a choir reference library…the foremost English, French and German musical magazines.” For more on the early history of the library, you are encouraged to seek out the article by Louise Goldberg and Charles Lindahl titled “Gathering the Sources” that was published in the Ruth Watanabe festschrift.

The initial collection of 2000+ volumes of books and scores, which is a fascinating gathering of material worthy of its own study, was brought together over a couple of years and cost in excess of $3000 (or about $90,000 in today’s economy). This bronze plaque, which still adorns our entry way, states that “This musical library given by Hiram W Sibley is for the use of all music lovers in Rochester.” You can see that the aim of the collection was not all academic, nor purely for performance. As Rochester did not have a city public library at the time, Sibley installed the new collection as a free, publically circulating library in a part of Sibley Hall. It’s worth noting here that we still honor that commitment to Rochester musicians, and several use us as their primary library.

The first catalog, published in 1906—two years after the library was established—is a fascinating document of what the trio of Newton, Hale, and Krehbiel deemed the important works to start a library. On this page we see the classification scheme that was devised, and then here are the first entries of books—fairly eclectic, as you can see. 

In 1918 George Eastman started to make plans to establish the Institute of Musical Art as part of the University of Rochester. From the beginning, Sibley’s music collection was planned to be an integral part of the new school. While the collection had been growing steadily over the years, it had been guided by content in keeping with its initial construction. Now Sibley asked Newton to “build a ‘working’ collection of books and scores without ‘frills and curiosities’” to be ready to be installed in the new school in 1921. Between 1918 and 1921 more than 6000 volumes were added to the music collection (by way of contrast, this was more than the university library as a whole added).


Adding Sibley’s library to the Eastman building was a big enough deal in Rochester that it warranted a multi-page story in the local newspaper, complete with architectural drawings. Here is a picture of the first reading room. Please note the tables and chairs: we’re still using them, as you saw in the tour. Here’s another angle, complete with students, and then the view outside the librarian’s office. The portrait of Mozart that you see here now hangs prominently in our main stairwell. The library moved into that space in 1922, the year we hired our first professional librarian, Barbara Duncan. Ms. Duncan immediately made an impact on the kind of material that the library acquired, with the mandate of creating a first class research collection. Misters Sibley and Eastman, together with the university gave her substantial funds to purchase material, and it was Sibley himself that encouraged her to spend the money particularly in Europe where the dollar was strong against those currencies. It was during Duncan’s tenure that Sibley saw the majority of our rare books collection added. It has been quite some time since we have been a player in the antiquarian market, however.

With such significant growth, the collection quickly outgrew its space, and a new building was built to house it. Opening in January 1937, the Sibley Music Library (the name shortened from the earlier Sibley Musical Library) was in a separate structure adjacent to the main hall. The picture here was taken from the back door of the main hall. At the time, it was the first building built in the US specifically to house a music library, and was designed to hold 150,000 volumes. Here is a picture of the new reading room, with the same tables and chairs, and a state of the art listening room. By the time Ms. Duncan retired in 1947 the collection had grown to nearly 55,000 volumes. Interestingly for a school of music, according to Mary Wallace Davidson the collection focused on research needs, almost to the exclusion of performance. That would change with the appointment of Ruth Watanabe as the second librarian to lead Sibley. This may be my favorite picture of Ruth.

As the school’s curricula and programs changed through the fifties and sixties, most notably the expansion of performance through the Doctor of Musical Arts degrees, Watanabe concentrated her acquisitions on currently published material. Indeed, her mantra was “Music is never cheaper than the day it comes off the press.” To that end, she ramped up subscription programs with several publishers and vendors, both domestically and abroad. That’s not to say that she ignored the antiquarian market, but there her purchases tended to be large collections of material instead of unique gems. In her first fifteen years, Watanabe more than doubled the size of the collection: “almost 120,000 volumes of books and music, some 25,000 uncatalogued songs, sheet music, and pamphlets, about 21,000 78 rpm and 12,000 33 rpm recordings, microfilms, microcards, and manuscripts.” By the time of her retirement in 1984, Watanabe doubled the size of the print collection once again, and quadrupled the size of the record collection.

According to Watanabe, “The late sixties was a period of great expansion of the collection but simultaneously of near trauma in an effort to keep it within the four walls of its building.” In the mid1970s there was a significant effort to renovate the Sibley building so that it might allow for expansion. The story as it was told to me is that by the 1980s the 1937 building was bursting at the seams, so much so that anywhere they could add 6 inches of shelving, they would do so, that they would actively encourage faculty to not bring material back once they’d checked it out. Frankly, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of that latter decision with some faculty to this day, but that’s another topic for another time. One of the solutions was to put in a variety of storage locations around the school and university overflow materials that could be recalled for use within 24 hours. By the time we moved into our current space, the building that was supposed to contain 150,000 volumes had more than a half-million. 

In 1985, Mary Wallace Davidson, probably known to many people watching this, took over the reins of Sibley Music Library. Perhaps her greatest achievement was overseeing the construction of our current facility. An entire city block on the opposite side of Gibbs Street from Eastman’s main hall was purchased and razed to make way for what is now called the Miller Center. If you can believe it, they tore these buildings down just to make space for a music library. And here’s a picture of Mary digging in with her shovel to get the project started. The present Sibley Library has some 45,000 square feet of space, occupying the top three floors of the building. Further credit goes to Mary in that the ceiling of the top floor was poured as a floor, meaning that structurally we could add another story on top, should the funding ever come through. Our circulating collections of course keep growing, as do our archival materials. For our circulating collection of books and scores, excluding the folio material, we have available over 9600 three foot shelves, or nearly 29,000 linear feet in total. Here’s a picture looking down the second floor stack area housing the circulating score collection.

I’m sure that many people listening to this presentation would be more than pleased with this kind of space, and truly we are grateful for what we have. But even there, we have had our problems over the years. For example, our recordings and media stacks have a finite amount of space. We have essentially stopped accepting gifts of LPs, unless it is something extraordinary. Gerry Szymanski, our Reserves and Digital Services Librarian, came up with a clever way of shelving our VHS and DVD collection that allowed us to greatly increase our capacity per cubic foot. We’ll likely have to make room elsewhere in that area to accommodate new CDs, perhaps by weeding out duplicates or relegating the service copies of Eastman Audio Archive CDs to a storage area. LPs still receive a fair amount of use, so relegating that collection to a remote location would disadvantage our users.

Our vault was designed to have 3500 square feet, and more than 4300 linear feet of shelving, but now even that space is feeling the crunch. Mary reminded me more than once that she was told by the administration not to expect the funding that would fill up the library any time soon. As I mentioned before, we have been a bit player at best in the antiquarian market for quite some time. However, as the vault is not just for individually cataloged rare items as shown here, but also for processed archival collections—or in the words of Suki Sommer, “stuff in a box”—we are growing at a pretty good clip. The caged area on the south end of the top floor is something of a holding area for collections not yet processed, and that space, too, is filling up, as you can see in the picture on the right. 


Another area of crowding is the folio section, as you can see here. Our current library has specially designed shelving for folio or oversized material. Over the years we had to make one significant change by moving Eastman Composition doctoral works, which were located on folio shelving, into the caged storage area, and then shifting about one third of the regular scores to those vacated shelves, which are on a different floor. This move has allowed Sibley to keep purchasing and making available so many of the scores that we get from our European buying plans. However, even this shift has nearly reached the end of its usefulness and we are going to have to do something more radical. If you notice in this picture you’ll see that the oversize shelving not built into the wall is double sided. We’ve only been using one side because so many oversize scores are so enormous as to take up both sides, as you can see here. What we’re going to have to do with these are transfer them to a map case, and stand other scores on their spine so that we can use both sides of this shelving. By the way, the enormous score that you see laying in the map case is a work for solo flute, Somaksah by Yoritsune Matsudaira. It measures 28 inches tall by 36 inches wide.

We’ve recently had to make a big shift in the book ranges, due in large part to the subject matter of the books that we are buying. Books in the high ML3000s have been coming in at a tremendous rate as scholars write more about topics covered in those call number ranges: popular music, jazz, ethnomusicology, etc. In Sibley most of the circulating MLs are on the third floor, and are followed by a few aisles of non-music books. Since Sibley adds very little in the way of non-music books, we shifted these books so that we filled each three foot shelf to the max, and used the top shelves, so there are six full shelves per vertical section. Now, as non-music books are added to the collection, a book or two will need to be weeded or otherwise removed from the shelf where the new volume will be placed. I have to admit that I hedged our bets by not using the bottom shelves, just in case a situation arises in the future. But by doing that we were able to back shift almost all the way to the ML410 biographies, and now we have plenty of growth space for these materials. 

A similar project will take place this summer on the second floor with our M-classed scores. Due to two notable gifts—one by a local violin shop owner who gave us his entire collection of unsold string music (nearly 6000 scores and sets of parts) and the other trumpeter Edward Tarr’s working collection of scores (approximately1300 items)—certain areas of our collection are now burgeoning to the point where we need to use the top shelves, as seen here. However, we currently have seven vertical sections that are presently unused, and have a plan to free up another seven sections by shifting some little used music education material to the top floor, where it will still be accessible on site. That’s at least 70 shelves freed up that will allow us to backshift scores and allow for continued growth. 


Already our score section had been thinned somewhat when we did our National Endowment for the Humanities-funded digitization project. That four-year project allowed us to scan more than 20,000 titles, and we did that by cutting the music out of its covers (most of which were in old, acidic bindings) and using sheetfeed scanners. While some of those public domain scores were reprinted and rebound for the stacks, many others were deemed to be of little enough immediate use that we left them as digital only copies that could be downloaded and/or printed on demand. One of the ways we determined that was by looking at the circulation slips in the back to see how many times the work had circulated and when, and you can see that in our digital repository because we scanned the stamped circulation slips as well. Here’s an example of from a piano trio entitled Sentimental Sketches by Daniel Gregory Mason. You’ll see that this was really popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, and then its musical stock fell precipitously after that. It had not been checked out since 1971, and therefore would be a candidate to leave available only in digital form. It has been downloaded nearly 50 times from our repository. The original scores were all kept, going either to our caged storage area on the fourth floor, or joining about 19,000 volumes in our remote storage facility. 

As I write these words, we now stand at 60% of our maximum capacity in the circulating book and score collections. What this has meant for the past few generations is that we have maintained as vigorous and robust a purchasing plan as funds would allow. What this means in the long run is that we are generally finding ways to keep our collection immediately available to the community, and at the same time allowing Sibley to maintain its stature as a research library by adding the materials that our current users need immediately, but just as importantly we can build our collections for future generations as well. We have often eschewed electronic resources knowing that to pay for them we would have to take that money out of our funds to purchase physical copies. For us it boiled down to one question: purchase material for current and future uses—the very definition of a research collection—or lease for some period of time the latest electronic resources, knowing that at some point in the future those would go away. This is the quintessential Sibley Being Sibley. Will Met Opera on Demand be there for our students and faculty 10 years from now? 20? 100? Who knows? Further, the fewer print resources we add in favor of the same electronic resources to which other libraries subscribe, the less unique Sibley’s collection becomes, and the more homogeneous our collective libraries around the country and around the world become. However, in a few months we will have a new director, and it will be up to them to chart our course.

Thanks for watching.