Central Library tunes up for expansion

The refurbished music room gleams behind department head Steve Landstreet at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The room also was reorganized to improve public access.

One morning not too long ago, staff arrived for work in the music room of the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia to find that a lighting fixture had dropped from the ceiling and was dangling in midair, a pile of rubble beneath it.

Eighteen months later, a new fixture is in - casting light on a substantially renovated music library with freshened ambitions.

With almost $500,000 from the city and private sources, highly detailed plasterwork was redone, new lighting was fabricated, and more sophisticated computers and listening stations were installed. The entire room - the city's only full-scale music library not part of a school - was reorganized to give the public greater access to reference books, recordings, music scores, and more.

The net effect is a brighter, more highly functioning library, boosting the department's ability to mine its treasures with an assist from technology.

Wednesday morning, as sun streamed through windows once partially obscured by shelving, a dozen or so patrons made good use of the newly hospitable digs. A few perused the Internet on enormous new computer screens. A young man compared various facsimiles of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. And a librarian scanned a Maurice Duruflé piece that, through software alchemy, was quickly translated into sound through earphones.

The renovation was small, but the preamble to a much greater one. With the downturn in the economy and the threat of 11 branch closings that resulted only in some curtailed hours, the library had put its vast Central Library expansion on hiatus. But leaders now feel confident enough to predict that a shovel will go in the ground this year.

Fund-raising continues. About $105 million has been pledged toward the $175 million goal (which includes $10 million for endowment), and a promising stretch of prospects lies just ahead, says Sandra A. Horrocks, Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation development/communications vice president. Gov. Rendell is dangling $4 million if it can be matched, and perhaps two other major gifts are expected this year, Horrocks said.

The music room was a warm-up for the architect. Moshe Safdie & Associates is designing a new addition and the partial restoration of the existing building. While waiting for the green light on the larger project, the Somerville, Mass., firm chose the cream, butter, and light-mocha paint for the music room and designed the lighting, somewhat influenced by fixtures elsewhere in the library.

Reordering the collection, which is still in progress, is slightly more complex than reorganizing your CDs.

"We have probably between 300,000 and half a million total pieces," says Steve Landstreet, head of the Free Library's music department.

The larger music enterprise comprises several main parts: the Fleisher Collection, housed in another room, which holds - and lends - what officials say is the largest collection of orchestral parts in the world; the chamber music collection; the collection of instrumental sheet music, mostly late-19th-century and early-20th-century piano music from the great age of amateur parlor music; and the Drinker Collection, the manifestation of an obsession of Philadelphian Henry S. Drinker, lawyer to the Trapp family, who translated the Bach cantatas into English.

"The only downside is that it is not musically fashionable to do Bach in English anymore," says Landstreet.

To wander through the Central Library's music room is to experience a rare wonder of highly organized miscellany.

In the three floors of stacks, a Folio of Music for the Pipe Organ culled by E.H. Flagler (1911) sits not far from the Jeff Beck Anthology (1991). Dick Hyman's Professional Chord Changes and Substitutions for 100 Tunes Every Musician Should Know snuggles up against Harpsichord Studies selected by Maria Boxall.

Some of the holdings are deep. The complete works of Jean-Philippe Rameau are there - in 20 slightly dusty volumes, neatly laid out on 6,722 pages - as are great swaths of scores of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Vivaldi, Rossini, Schoenberg, Gluck, Elgar, Byrd, and Bruckner. An impressive run of DJ Times, the magazine aimed at "DJs with their careers in fields that include nightclub work, mobile work and remixing," sits atop one shelf.

Method books abound. You Can Teach Yourself Blues Harp, by Phil Duncan, beckons optimistically - optimistically, at least, compared with A. Darr's curtly titled Method for Zither.

CDs of all genres are available for borrowing. The general-interest music books - a Barbra Streisand biography, children's songbooks - are out for any library card holder to take home.

And then there are the treasures - among them sheet music from 1793, "which is about as early as there was sheet music," says Linda Wood, one of four department librarians, who oversees a large Civil War collection and other gems bought during an era when the department had a fatter acquisitions budget.

Wood hauls them out: a book illustrating hand-colored costumes and sets by Georges Braque from Les Fâcheux, a Diaghilev ballet with music of Georges Auric; a large folio of Sports and Divertissements, by Erik Satie, each one of his short piano pieces hand-scored on the left page, with a boldly hand-colored Charles Martin illustration on the right; a slightly foxed copy of "Grave of the Slave," the important abolitionist song by Philadelphia composer and bandleader Francis Johnson.

How did these rarities find their way to the library?

"We used to be able to buy lots of things," Wood says.

But even today, the department is still aiming at growth, much of it digital. Landstreet wants to acquire more computer power - notation software for composers, for instance.

That kind of function dovetails with a larger library mission that library president and director Siobhan A. Reardon is working into the program for the new building. New spaces for "content creation" are planned - stations where composers can realize their music in podcasts, where authors can meet to talk about their work, and where animators can work.

Even after the addition opens, the library plans to continue renovating the current building, department by department, as funding is found - as it has just done with the music room.

Says Horrocks: "There's a lot more work to do."

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/