What is a Music Librarian?
The many envelopes in the Concord Orchestra's music library, when it was stored in the piano room.

What is a Music Librarian?

Written by Marilyn Kloss, Music Librarian for the Concord Orchestra

Orchestra librarians are responsible for ordering, distributing, collecting, and returning music. They may also generate music budgets, manage a library of music, copy parts, copy bowings in string parts, and share music with other orchestras. Being an orchestra librarian most of all means being organized.

Being an orchestra librarian has its moments; i.e., panic when you realize that you forgot to order a work for the next concert and the first rehearsal is that evening. Why would that happen? It can happen because you put the budget together early, then the program changes and you don’t notice the change until too late.

Panic can also set in when you can’t get music back from a player who is incommunicado in China and you have a deadline for shipping everything back to the publisher before incurring a fine.

But being an orchestra librarian can also be satisfying; for example, after a concert when all the music is either returned to the library or shipped to the distributor.


I volunteered to be the Concord Orchestra librarian when I was asked to be on the Managing Board. My father had been librarian of the community orchestra in the town where I grew up, so I thought I had an idea what the job entailed and it could be my contribution as a Board member to the running of the orchestra. (It turned out that I had a lot to learn.) I was on the budget committee, so I was given the task of putting together the music budget, and I’ve been doing the music budget ever since. I don’t know if other music librarians do that.

The music director sends me a tentative program for the following season. I look in catalogs, contact distributors, and check listings from other community orchestras to determine costs. If the composer or work is not obviously available from the usual sources, our music director points me in the right direction. I send the resulting budget to the Board and the music director. I usually get word of changes along the way, sometimes because no chorus is available for a proposed work, or a work is too expensive. The budget is eventually approved by the Board.


The Concord Orchestra has an extensive library for a community orchestra. Envelopes and boxes of music were on shelves in the room where the piano is kept until it was too much for the space. Fortunately, the dance group that shares the building was generous in allowing us to build a cabinet in their changing room upstairs. A contractor who works with the Concord Players did the job. Even this new space is not enough to hold all our music, so some boxes are kept in a closet with other orchestra materials.

We keep a listing of all the works in the library, and we sometimes lend works to other community orchestras.

Precarious storage of the music library in the piano closet

The many envelopes in the Concord Orchestra’s music library, when it was stored in the piano room.

New cabinet for music library

There’s still not enough storage in our new cabinet, but it is spacious and helps a lot.

Other Community Orchestras

Speaking of other community orchestras, I have gathered a list of other community orchestra librarians in the region and lists of their library holdings. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good way of combining and communicating the listings, so people contact me to find out who has what. The list of librarians is shared by pdf file or printout.

The cooperating orchestras save money by sharing music. We have gotten to the point of not reimbursing each other for postage since we ended up exchanging checks for similar amounts. We often arrange to pick up the music rather than ship it, especially with big boxes (paper is heavy!).

I wrote a Handbook for Community Orchestra Librarians (at the behest of Max Hobart, conductor of the Wellesley and Civic orchestras) with details on doing the job. This booklet is now in pdf format and can be sent by email.

Before the First Rehearsal

Music is distributed to orchestra members in two ways. For practice over the summer, music for a major work on the first concert might be distributed at the Pops concert in May or, now that so much music is available online, members can print practice parts from a website. Otherwise, members are notified when music arrives in August; they can pick it up ahead of time or get it at the first rehearsal. During the season, we pass out music for the next concert at the last rehearsal or last performance of the current concert so players can practice it before the first rehearsal.

If the music we’re playing is in our library, it’s easy – get the music out of the library, check that all the parts are there, and perhaps copy an extra string part. If another orchestra has the work, I contact the librarian well ahead and arrange to borrow it. For commercial distribution, two publishers (Kalmus and Luck’s) carry virtually all music in the public domain. Works still under copyright (including most Russian composers) must be rented (at what seem like high prices) from various other publishers and distributors, primarily G. Schirmer and Boosey & Hawkes but others as well. Renting works under copyright usually involve signing a contract well before the music is needed.

Sets from publishers, and also from other orchestras, often don’t have enough string parts. I sometimes make copies and sometimes ask the string librarians to do it. I am not a string player, and I depend on two volunteers to distribute and collect the string parts. With so many string players to keep track of, I don’t think I could do the job without them. The string librarians use sign-out sheets to keep track of who has which part. Our librarians don’t mark bowings in the string parts; that is left to the string section leaders to handle. We still have plenty of work to do!

After the Last Performance

We ask the players to leave the music on their stands after the last performance. The strings have volunteers in each section collect the music in their section. I collect the wind, brass, and percussion music and any conductor’s scores that need to be returned. I don’t need sign-out sheets because it is obvious who has what part. The string librarians sort and count their parts and track down anyone who hasn’t turned in their music. I sort the other parts and track down any missing parts. When everything is assembled, I return sets to the library, other orchestras, or the distributors. We have a week after the last performance to ship music back to distributors or risk a fine.


Being an orchestra librarian is a lot of work and requires thinking ahead to get everything ready on time, but it is a satisfying job. It is tangible, with a beginning and an end – well, sometimes it seems as though it never ends, but that’s another story.

Editor’s note: Marilyn has written an excellent handbook for orchestra librarians, which you can download.

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2 comments on “What is a Music Librarian?
  1. Betsy Anderson says:

    Thank you, Marilyn, for your many hours during your years as The Concord Orchestra Librarian. That is a generous volunteer donation to the group.
    I think that your writing is so clear and informative. Your job description tells me that you do even more than I knew. Your article is an extra gift to the orchestra in sharing, for the record. It is also helpful, currently, to others in the orchestra who are preparing to write job descriptions for future volunteers.
    While you thank the assistants in the string sections in saying that you could not do the job without their help, orchestra members can say that we could not do it without you!
    Betsy Anderson

  2. barbara marden says:

    I just read your clear, comprehensive and interesting article and think it should be required reading for every orchestra member.