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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Michael Ochs

Michael Ochs

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 with prerequisites.

"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 musical life."

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 arts.

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