How to create a sheet music library

20.05.2022 Ben Maloney Music education

From avid performers and connoisseur collectors to reluctant stewards and professional librarians, many will face the task of having to organise an unwieldy assemblage of sheet music. 

No matter which of those categories you may fall into, there are a few things that must be considered in order for a library to fulfil its unique requirements. If you find yourself embarking on this journey with little idea what those things are, then this article should steer you in the right direction. 

It offers a brief walkthrough, guiding you from conception to completion. An enterprising solution to the bibliographic challenge in its own right, nkoda serves as a helpful reference throughout the article - a democratic offering whose broad accessibility enables it to set an example in a range of contexts.

Purpose
 

The first thing you’ll need to think about is the library’s overall aims and objectives. From the earliest collections of the ancient world to your newest project, libraries have always been, by their innermost nature, a service. If one is to be successful, then it must entirely prioritise the needs of those that are to use it. 

Make this your mission statement, and allow everything else to spring as naturally as possible from there. Ask then, what kind of access should the library provide? What kind of items must it offer? Most importantly, whom should it serve? The answers to these questions will amount to the purpose of your library. 

This is not just philosophical posturing - these are important questions to answer, not least because the answers will determine the next steps you take. Fortunately, if you’re already looking for advice in creating a sheet music library, then you’ll probably have some idea as to what its nature and scope should be.

Are you simply organising your own collection? Have you been entrusted with managing materials used by students, or perhaps an amateur orchestra? You might be in charge of developing a library designed to serve a school or a local community.

Imagine, understand, take on the needs of the musicians whose lives will be made easier by this library’s existence. Do that and you’ll be able to rise to each individual challenge in the library-creation process more smoothly and successfully.

There are more variables than just users in all those examples given above. Are you just organising, or acquiring and organising? Do you have a degree of say as to where the library should be situated and how the material should be stored?  

The narrower your responsibilities, the further down this article you can jump, but if you’re in charge of constructing something from the ground up, then its foundation should be tailored to the specific needs the library is intended to meet.  

Speaking of jumping, then all this will definitely seem like posturing if your library is a personal project. It goes without saying that you’ll already know and understand your own needs. If you’re that kind of librarian, then you’ll probably want to skip to cataloguing below.

At the other end of the spectrum, nkoda at its inception committed to providing the widest possible access to the broadest possible cohort of musicians. That’s why it offers music in all genres and for all instruments. That’s why it partnered itself with hundreds of publishers, orchestras, universities and schools around the world. That’s why it developed the means to deliver that content to anyone, anytime, anywhere. 

Everything started with that opening mission statement. Establish and honour yours and you’ll have won half the battle. 

Space
 

Remember: figure out the purpose of your library, and everything else will flow from that. Coming first after that initial conceptualisation is the actual physical manifestation of your library - the space that it occupies.

Selecting an ideal geographical location goes without saying. If you’re looking after scores and parts on behalf of a performing ensemble in your village, for instance, then it makes little sense to keep them in storage in the nearest town.

But this also applies on a smaller scale, right down to the part of a room that the library encompasses. You’ll want to find a space where everyone who needs access to the materials can access them as easily as possible, where the materials can be browsed and read, and where they can be kept securely. 

In most cases, the location will be predetermined. But should you be lucky enough to have power over placement, try to ensure that these interests are respected. 

As mentioned above, these matters pertain not just to location but to the management of space, bringing us into closer alignment with the notion of storage. The library’s items will need to be housed appropriately, and that means either securing the right kind of storage furniture for the collection or making the best of what you have. 

Again, this sounds obvious, but if you’re not used to organising sheet music then you may be surprised at the variety of shapes and sizes it comes in. Some scores will need extra tall shelf space, while single sheets cry out for binders, folders and filing cabinets. This doesn’t need to be a head-scratcher, but it’s worth taking a moment or two to reflect on.

If this is a particularly pressing concern, the blog has an article tailor-made for you: how to store sheet music. Have a read if you want more detailed advice on finding the correct storage solutions. 

Ultimately, we’d all love an enormous space with reading booths and a seating area, but that won’t be available to the majority of librarians. If you aren’t able to create a bespoke space, then your goal here is to optimise the facilities made available to you. 

By and large, what constitutes optimal in your case will pivot on the type of content that the library will be offering.

Content
 

So, just what will it offer? The world of sheet music is a vast one and its users populate an equally broad church. To meet the needs of its particular group of users, your library will probably need to hone in on a certain type of content

The more clearly defined that group is, the more specialised the library will need to be, and the more specific the content. Composition students need study scores, orchestral players need parts, instrumental learners need playbooks. 

If you’re starting from scratch, then you’ll need to spend a fair amount of time thinking about what to bring in and how to get hold of it - in a word, acquisition. Even if your role at present involves handling an existing sheet music collection, it’ll probably have to be expanded at some point. Naturally, as librarian, you’ll play a part here. 

You might get specific instructions as to what you should obtain. Pupils could have set works to study, or your ensemble director may indicate that a certain piece of music is needed for an upcoming performance.

But if you’re curating all by yourself, try to anticipate what might be needed. You can cover this base by securing core, popular repertoire, but try to ensure that you nurture a collection, too. It’s as much a librarian’s duty to offer resources as it is to facilitate and encourage discovery. 

After all, it’s about time that lesser-known composers - particularly contemporary artists and those from underrepresented communities - got more exposure, and made their way on to more educational syllabuses and concert programmes. As much as we adore them, the deans of classical musicians - the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin - have dominated musical practice to the neglect of countless deserving musicians for too long.  

Moreover, that just concerns the classical arena. Nowadays many players look to jazz, folk, R&B and even video game music for inspiration. Sheet-music providers such as publishers and online marketplaces are adopting an increasingly cosmopolitan remit by offering access to repertoire like this.   

So think about fostering a healthy balance across a range of variables, applying not only to genre but also to instrument and type of item - i.e. score, part, playbook, text, and so on. 

This has been nkoda’s approach from the start, indiscriminately obtaining and dispensing content to try and cater to the needs of every individual whose life involves searching for some kind of musical material - whether that’s opera conductors who need access to Ricordi’s mammoth Verdi collection, or piano teachers after pop-song transcriptions by Faber.

nkoda also offers acquisitional updates by spotlighting new content on its Discover page. You can do this as well, by sending out emails to users or putting items on display. It’s a great way to stimulate interest and notify users about materials they might not have been aware of.

If you’d like to know more about what routes to go down when it comes to purchasing new material, the article on where to buy sheet music should offer some helpful further reading. As well as going into more detail about where to look when searching for particular items, it also explains how institutional subscriptions to services like nkoda can open doors to hundreds of thousands of items in one hit.

Digital
 

Services like nkoda inhabit a world that is transforming the connotations of ‘music library’ - that of digital sheet music. Regardless of the kind of enterprise you’re overseeing, going digital is an option that you should absolutely consider seriously. 

As well as rendering storage difficulties moot and exponentially expanding the availability of content, the digital route carries a range of advantages that will at least streamline, at most maximise the sheet-music experience for your users. 

Whether you’re unlocking third-party libraries like nkoda, purchasing individual downloads or digitising your existing collection, electronic access brings the full breadth of a library’s resources instantly within reach. Access via mobile devices such as a smartphone or tablet means that content can be viewed and used in any place at any time. 

The implications of that are enormous. Portability and transferability are blown wide open. Music can now be transported, read and played freely. It can be annotated without limits, with those markings easily shareable between conductor and player, teacher and student, etc. The environment will thank you for going paperless, too. 

Your library can thus offer not just the resource itself, but the means of engaging with it, in study, practice and performance. 

And you have to sacrifice little to enjoy those perks. In nkoda’s case, a subscription fee offers unlimited access, and reimburses the app’s publishing providers and their artists in turn, aiding in the battle against piracy and copyright infringement that is admittedly a darker aspect of the digital world. 

Even so, financially speaking (of course the bursar always always needs persuading), the benefit of accessing over 100,000 titles, all for the price of one score, goes without saying. 

Alongside the app’s offering as a digital library that enables all-in-one egalitarian access, it functions as a personal sheet music hub. Each user possesses their individual account space in which they can organise titles, create playlists and set lists, store and share annotations, access music offline - and to which they can upload unlimited PDFs. Even as part of institutional library subscriptions, this personalised user experience app space is retained.  

To come back to the concept of digital sheet music more generally, it must be stressed that embracing it doesn’t mean abandoning the physical format altogether. Even the folks at nkoda won’t deny that there’s something very special about feeling a real, tangible score in your hands. Let digital resources simply supplement and enhance your collection. Enjoy the best of both worlds.

At any rate, there’s a massive range of digital options available. If you’d like to learn more, check out the blog articles about what digital sheet music is and how digital sheet music works. This external text on digital library systems and management services indicates some next steps as well.

Cataloguing
 

Whether digital or physical, when it comes to maintaining your library, an absolutely vital aspect of it concerns cataloguing. The biggest library in the world is no use to anyone if it’s impossible to find what you need among disorganised chaos. 

Second to shushing noisy library-goers, systematically arranging stock is the librarian’s most notoriously enjoyable responsibility. Technically, however, that relates to the application of a system, which is the less complicated part. Developing that system is the real challenge. 

This is because the best method of organising your items will invariably be a bespoke one, designed with the particular demands of your space, material and users in mind. But, whatever the exact nature of your system, it must be applied consistently and completely, and - crucially - it has to make sense to those looking for items in the catalogue. 

Needless to say, this is easier said than done. Let’s say you choose to arrange your items alphabetically by the composer's last name. A good place to start, but what happens when there are multiple contributors to the same edition? Should you file under ‘Various artists’? Are they named or unnamed? Perhaps whoever’s edited or arranged the material should step in?

Let’s zoom in on just one composer’s material. Among it there’ll doubtless be scores as well as parts, each for a variety of forces, in a variety of physical sizes, in a variety of compositional forms, printed in a variety of languages. You might even have several editions of the same work. Quickly gets pretty complex, right? 

There are so many parameters, and each will need to be taken into account. You’ll likely have to somehow break down the stock into sections. One might be devoted to didactic material - e.g. books of technical exercises - subdivided by instrument and then by author. Another might house opera vocal scores, the next popular music and jazz, and so on.

Cataloguing pertains not just to ordering, but also to tracking, recording and labelling - physically as well as digitally. If there will be a recorded component to your library then you’ll need to develop a system for that, too. This needs to also be applied consistently and completely, and it also needs to correspond somehow to your arranging system. 

This is where ‘metadata’ comes in. A word that you may have heard knocked around, that sounds intimidating but isn’t. In this context it basically refers to the way you keep track of each item’s details: title, publisher, date, and so on. 

This medata can be linked to and organised in a database, an inventory that will assist not only in arranging items but also in managing stock that may comprise thousands of titles.

If you have an account or an active free trial on nkoda, search for something and see how the catalogue team labels the app’s content. They employ a title-based system, arranging the items according to edition title. Also included is the subtitle, offering more information about the edition, as well as composer, instrumental forces, publisher and genre. 

It’s a method that can be easily applied to every item in a massive and diverse catalogue, which enables users to locate and access what they’re searching for at their convenience.  

There’s no right or wrong way to go about cataloguing. You just need to ensure that the system is clear and consistent, that it accommodates the full extent of the sheet music in the collection somehow (some caveats for troublesome items will be unavoidable), and that it’s decipherable for users. 

Occurring hand-in-hand with acquisition, it’ll be one of the most critical aspects of your ongoing librarianship. Thankfully, the creation process will come to an end at some point, but sustaining, growing, adapting a library is a never-ending job. 

But you don’t have to face it alone.

nkoda as a library solution
 

nkoda has basically functioned as a case study in the course of this article, helping to explain what library-building entails and demonstrating how that substantial process can play out. 

It can help you with much more than that, too. If you do find yourself tasked with creating a sheet music library, and you think that it might be a valuable asset to either you or the institution you work for, there’s no harm in reaching out. Perhaps you’re just looking for some advice. In any case, visit the contact page on the website. 

But if you’ve already found what you came here looking for - great. Create your library, develop your unique offering, spread knowledge, enhance practice and nurture the love of music that you must have to have come this far.

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