ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Strolling across the Harvard campus on a gorgeous Monday
morning in May to learn something about music librarianship, we mused on
how pleasant life in academia can be with its civility, its unhurried pace,
its reverence for tradition and reluctance for change. We were off to meet
Michael Ochs, senior lecturer on music and librarian of the Eda Kuhn Loeb
Music Library, the first Richard F. French Librarian there, the incoming
president of the Music Library Association (MLA), and a renowned scholar,
writer, editor, and library science authority. If we were expecting to touch
base with the hushedly stolid Milquetoast type, we couldn't have been wronger:
Michael Ochs is a dynamo.
The whirl, the excitement of revelation, the need to know
and the wish to know it thoroughly, these have been components of Ochs's
personality from earliest childhood on. He was born in Cologne in 1937 and
came to the United States in 1939, there to settle (with some relatives who
had come over a little earlier) on New York's West Side. "There were
about six or seven of them living in this six or seven-room apartment when
the five of us my parents, brother, sister, and I moved in on them. At one
point, there were as many as thirteen people living in that little apartment.
We were all refugees without any money. My mother worked as a practical nurse
and my father, who was a doctor, had to study to get his American license.
After two years, he got his certification and we were able to move into an
apartment across the street where he also had his office."
The young Michael's home surroundings, economic straits notwithstanding,
were filled with music and books and constant exchanges of ideas. His father
played violin and Michael recalls asking for a recording of The Magic
Flute the old 78s, of course for his fifth birthday. What he got was a
recording of the overture, but his parents took him to see the opera at the
old Met (Family Circle) about then, and his passion for music was established
and lifelong. He started piano lessons. Also developing about then was his
sometimes self-deprecating wit. "My piano teacher, Frau Sass, said I
was her only failure. The problem, she said, was that I was too smart. In
college, I managed to pass the keyboard exam by playing a Bach fugue at about
one-fifth of the proper tempo." His undergraduate training was at the
College of the City of New York (CCNY), where he began as a math and physics
major, but took some music courses that got him to "drift over"
to the music department. (There he had his first opportunity of working in
a library.) "In the '50s, you could go to college without necessarily
knowing what you were going to do with that. You were going for an
education, and when you got out, you'd get a job somewhere. I had no other
plans, thinking that something would come up and God would provide."
On graduation from CCNY, he went to NYU graduate school
evenings working in musicology with Jan La Rue and others while he plied
menial trades during the day. "But Gustave Reese was my main man. I
kind of majored in Reese." He had become something of a medievalist
and Renaissance specialist by then, quite proficient in playing recorders.
He married Carol Blumenthal in 1959, whom he had met in a vocal ensemble
at City College, and the idealistic young couple moved to Israel for a year
with a tentative view to resettling on a farm. "In retrospect, it was
a good way of putting some distance between us and our parents. It was also
good to be doing something completely different, even if it was to find out
that it was not what we want to do."
Back in America after a year with his by now pregnant philosopher-wife
Carol, Ochs needed to earn a living and decided to get a teaching license
since New York was desperate for qualified math teachers. "It was a
terrible experience. I was really too young to handle the situation. Luckily,
I caught chicken pox from one of the kids and developed complications so
I was out for a few months. On a visit to [City College music librarian]
Melva Peterson, I got the low-down on music librarianship." He already
had half the necessary credits for a masters degree in musicology, and was
able to take a job in the CCNY music library while completing his library
degree at Columbia. In the mid-'60s, there was a shortage of librarians and
jobs were plentiful. So it was natural when Carol their two daughters were
now part of the family was offered a job in the philosophy department at
Brandeis, that Michael became the University's music librarian, a position
he was to hold for nine years. In 1974 he moved to Simmons College, a school
he had gotten to know well, having earned a doctorate from there in library
administration, and in 1978 he was appointed to Harvard.
Librarians may not be the first to be associated with the
movers and shakers of society, and specialty librarians take an even more
remote rung on the ladder of public consciousness. And yet, is the world,
most especially the free world, conceivable without the infinite resources
of the library? And where would musical awareness be without recourse to
the music of all ages and styles, the books written about it, the manuscripts
and scores themselves, the performance materials and phonorecords, the ever
expanding body of scholarship and research seeded by inspiration and leavened
by debate? Ten years ago, then president of the Music Library Association
D.W. Krummel wrote an article (MadAminA!, Spring 1982) in which he
stated: "Readers come to such repositories looking for the scores, books,
and recordings often only for the information they need. Often they don't
know exactly what they do need, providing some of the most interesting assignments
of all to librarians." Now we had an opportunity of asking incoming
MLA president Ochs about various aspects of music librarianship, beginning
"I'm going to talk about academic music librarianship,"
he replies, "because that's where most music librarians end up being
employed. The broader the background, the better. Anything you know will
somehow come into play and help you. It's important to know how to play an
instrument well enough to make you aware of some of the problems performing
musicians face. If you haven't done at least a masters in musicology, you
probably don't have the research background to do a good job in dealing with
people who spend their time doing research. The more bibliographic background
you have, the better, but there are things you can pick up on the job, too.
These days, to be really qualified you probably need a masters in library
science and a masters in musicology, too. The experience of working in a
library in general and a music library in particular is extremely useful.
And languages. I was lucky because I grew up speaking German. In musicology,
German is absolutely mandatory, along with at least a Romance language or
two." His response was startlingly clear, concise, and almost rehearsed.
It turned out that he had written the primer on the subject. His article
"A Taxonomy of Qualifications for Music Librarianship: The Cognitive
Domain" appeared in the September 1976 issue of the MLA journal Notes
and must be considered required reading by anyone with even a vague thought
about the field.
Our question about the differences between musicologists
and music librarians elicited a chuckle, followed immediately by a reasoned
reply: "The easiest way to see one very essential difference is to attend
a meeting of the A[merican] M[usicological]S[ociety] and then to attend an
MLA meeting. Musicologists tend, by the nature of their background, training,
and possibly job situtations, to be in competition with one another. At AMS
meetings, someone gives a paper and you know that there are people out there
with their guns drawn. They are constantly trying to prove that they are
better than other people in the field. Some of it is useful competition that
improves standards; but some is just backbiting. You don't have that at MLA
meetings, where people are, in fact, out to help each other. There is a tremendous
spirit of cooperation among music librarians, of people helping one another
do their jobs better, perhaps because there isn't that kind of competition
for jobs and status. It's one of the things that makes music librarianship
such a wonderful field. You go to meetings and you see your friends."
No one could fail to note the passion and enthusiasm, both
professional and human, in Ochs's reply. Nor can one escape the fallout from
his multifaceted commitment. Two years ago, he put together a symposium at
Harvard under the general rubric Music Librarianship in America, in
honor of the establishment of the Richard F. French Librarianship, the first
music library chair to be established in the United States. It was attended
by over 275 music librarians, musicologists, librarians from other disciplines,
and students, from thirty states and three foreign countries. In his introduction
to the handsome book on the event, Ochs wrote: "The purpose of the symposium to
explore the larger aspects of music librarianship was accomplished by examining
important issues from the viewpoint of senior practitioners and by looking
at the profession through the eyes of leading figures in neighboring disciplines.
In the papers and discussions presented here, a score of distinguished representatives
from the fields of musicology, ethnomusicology, history, publishing, arts
administration, performance, composition, criticism, librarianship, and library
education consider the role of music librarians and their contributions to
We asked about the gap between music librarians and performance
librarians. "Performance librarianship is really not considered part
of the music library world. Although there are things we could learn from
one another, the concerns are very different. Most music librarians haven't
had to deal with performance parts. Most music librarians don't want to handle
them. They don't know anything about them, in the same way that general librarians
don't know anything about music. They can't read it, they can't deal with
the stuff, so they're glad that music librarians exist. Performance librarians
are specialists dealing with the specific problems of practical editions
to scores and parts."
Music librarians, says Ochs, have also taken on a pretty
active role in educating themselves, the public, and scholars on the copyright
law. "It's a tough call because one wants to help protect composers
and authors from being vandalized by having their works appropriated illegally.
On the other hand, one does not want to impede scholarship. It's preservation
versus dissemination. It's a big problem that comes up every day and there
are no pat answers."
Technology has, of course, not only greatly facilitated accessibility
of information and material but it has speeded up the process immensely.
Between the near-universal computerization of catalogues, interfacing of
library apparatus, and such developments as the fax machine, data from virtually
anywhere may be accessed with a rapidity that would have been unthinkable
just a few years ago.
One reads disquieting reports on the closing of library schools,
even at such prestigious institutions as Columbia University. Is it a barometer
of the intellectual climate of our time? Does it bode ill? Says Ochs: "Library
schools have been closing down for years. Ten or a dozen have closed their
doors, and yet the other, surviving library schools seem to have taken up
the slack. If there weren't a budget crunch in the country just now, we would
be facing another shortage of librarians. There are excellent people coming
into the field, many with really fine qualifications. I'm very optimistic
about the future of music librarianship despite library school closings.
We still need highly trained, intelligent people. There's no point in paying
professors a lot of money to teach musicology if they don't have the library
support that they need. When universities and conservatories have good music
programs, they automatically create the demand for good libraries."
With all the anxieties and imponderables engulfing the profession,
Ochs is upbeat and optimistic on music librarianship, present and future.
"Our objective," he wrote in his Epilogue to the Harvard symposium,
"must be to do what we do best serve our patrons as interested, knowledgeable,
competent, and helpful members of a socially valuable profession and take
pride in our abilities and our considerable accomplishments. Among these
achievements are: conserving and disseminating a portion of the world's cultural
heritage; helping interpret that heritage to others; and participating in
the musical and musicological discourse of the day."
What would Michael Ochs say to young people contemplating
a life in the music library? "I would tell them that most of the people
in the field love their work. They are not looking to be doing something
else. One reason, I think, is the collegiality we discussed before. Another
reason is that these people love music, love being in and around it. Some
have backgrounds in performance, others in musicology. I would suggest that
they work in a library for a while, at any job. They may love it, or they
might turn out to hate it. The Columbia School was called the School of Library
Service, and `service' is the operational word. Do they feel that they are
being lackeys for somebody else, always playing second fiddle to somebody,
being exploited by users and customers? Then there's no point going into
the field. But if they like the idea of library service, then maybe this
is the right profession for them."
As he prepares to take up the presidency of MLA in February,
Ochs relinquishes his five-year editorship of what must be one of the most
professional of professional journals, Notes. What have been the rewards
and problems of these labors, given freely, and simultaneously with his other
duties? "The rewards are wonderful. You put a tremendous amount of work
into it, but then you have a physical object to show for it. It's great to
look over back issues you've produced and say, hey that wasn't bad. The overriding
problem was getting submissions. In five years of editing Notes, I never
had a backlog. Suki [Susan T.] Sommer [his editorial predecessor] tells me
that it was the same thing in her time. Some of the articles you see in the
magazine are there because I went hustling at AMS meetings and the like.
I was also forced to accept articles that needed a great deal of editorial
work to make them publishable." Frustrations not withstanding, each
issue of the quarterly Notes consists of some 400 pages of mostly
small type and contains, in addition to its feature articles, the most comprehensive
reviews of books on music, recordings, printed music, and periodicals published
anywhere in the world. "There's no way for an editor to do that. One
must have a tremendous staff, and the people who do that are simply stupendous.
They make the editor look good."
So here is Michael Ochs, age 55, at the top of his very
specialized profession, an eminence at Harvard University living a comfortable
life in Newton Centre with his wife Carol their two daughters are grown and
independent, Elisabeth a registered nurse, Miriam a studio artist turned
management consultant and one might understandably expect that he would wish
to do more of the same until the inevitable laureate status was conferred
upon him by his admiring colleagues.
It came as something of a bombshell in both the librarial
and publishing communities they are, of course, closely related that Michael
Ochs has just been appointed to succeed Claire Brook (see Encounter, MadAminA!, Spring 1988) as music editor of the distinguished publishing firm W.
W. Norton & Company, Inc. in New York. "Harvard is a really difficult
place to leave," he says. "I'm going from one dream job to another.
Librarianship has been a wonderful preparation for the new job because I've
been dealing with the same people that Claire talks to. There are differences
in goals, but there's enough in common that I don't feel I'm changing fields,
but rather doing something different in the same field. For the first year,
I'll probably be doing quite a bit of traveling to meet the people out in
the trenches and finding out what their needs are, trying to figure out what
the needs are going to be a few years from now."
Note the kneejerk reaction, the instinctive response to a
new challenge. First, be inquisitive, ask lots of questions, talk to everyone
from students to faculty to researchers and scholars to find out what the
needs are, how to accomplish a task or solve a problem, now and in
the future. Then be prepared to give service. That has been the temperamental
and professional profile of Michael Ochs, a humanist who labors in the musical