Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Sarasota Music Archive: a DIY institution housed in a County Library System

I had arrived in Sarasota, Florida, with nothing lined up for my fieldwork. I'd been emailing the Sarasota Music Archive to try and set up some interviews but hadn't received any replies. Yesterday morning, then, it was a case of trying my luck by turning up on the Archive's doorstep and hoping for the best...


As it turned out I'd been sending my emails to an out-of-date address! On turning up at the Archive, which is housed in the Selby Public Library, I was enthusiastically welcomed by the volunteers and also by the Special Collections Librarian who oversees the archive's activities within the library.

The Sarasota Music Archive is an example of a DIY institution that addressed issues of sustainability by joining forces with a formal institution (the Sarasota County Library System). The Archive, which began in 1980, could not afford its previous premises and so in 2000 merged with the Selby Public Library which has provided a space where the archive can continue to grow. Despite this relationship, the volunteers are still fairly independent in their activities. There are certain rules and regulations the Archive needs to follow (such as official processes for registering to volunteer) but they otherwise manage their own collection of 70,000 plus artefacts and have a different cataloguing system to the library, for example.

This is principally a research archive. It collects all genres of music and is global in focus. The mission: "To build a bridge linking the great irreplaceable music of the past and present to the future. We do this so that it might enrich, and become part of, the lives of music lovers of this and future generations". 

What I found in my interviews is that the Archive is certainly enriching the lives of its volunteers. The volunteer base is primarily made up of retirees who moved to Florida from elsewhere in the States (usually the North) and who have diverse backgrounds - everything from marine bioacoustics to architectural photography - with some also having professional musical backgrounds. There are also a number of volunteers who are "snowbirds" and give time to the Archive while they are wintering in the area. This means volunteer numbers are often in flux and this can be a challenge for keeping on top of cataloguing. More volunteers are needed (a common story in DIY institutions) and the promotional material for the Archive makes volunteering sound enticing: "We are a happy group of music lovers of various backgrounds who preserve music of the past for future generations".

Membership dues and private donations help fund the archive as do sales of duplicates. At the front desk can be found vinyl and sheet music for sale at bargain bin prices, and fundraising initiatives, such as a recent musical flea market fundraiser, bring in much needed cash (if only in small amounts). Of course, it isn't easy to shift vinyl and with too much to fit in the front desk shop the leftovers from the flea market are now stacked in the Archive awaiting their, as yet, unknown fate:

But what this indicates is that donations of material to the Sarasota Music Archive are very healthy. The collections and donations they are receiving now often mostly constitute duplicates but the volunteers continue to find gems amongst all this material that are contributing to the richness of their holdings - something the volunteers are very proud of.