Last Wednesday, BPL launched the city’s first-ever musical instrument lending library, which allows customers 17 years or older with a library card to borrow instruments for up to eight weeks.
Patrons can check out violins, acoustic guitars, ukuleles, electronic keyboards, drum pads or an entire drum set. All customers have to do is make an appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The program is already gaining popularity among library users. According to Peter Otis, a librarian with BPL’s arts and history division, two days after the library sent out an email blast, reservations began flooding in.
“With our current quantity, we’re already backlogged quite a bit,” he said. “It’s been hugely popular, certainly in the last two days. Keyboards, violins and guitars are all reserved out right now.”
The library celebrated the program’s launch last week with a musical celebration at the Central Branch auditorium in Prospect Heights. BPL’s in-house band of librarians, Lost in the Stacks, rocked out to an audience of staff members and patrons.
They were followed by the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music’s youth ensemble, including students from PS 321 in Park Slope.
Otis said the idea for the lending library came from BPL’s strategy office. Music librarian Harold Stern worked with Kay Badalamenti from the arts and history division to develop a proposal.
They also visited the Free Library of Philadelphia, which also has a musical instrument learning library, to learn about their program and collection.
The team then submitted the idea to the library’s internal “Brooklyn Incubator,” an initiative that encourages librarians to come up with programs that connect to local neighborhoods. A panel of judges approved the proposal, and awarded the lending library $10,000 to start the program.
Previous winners of the incubator include the Brooklyn Fashion Academy, a program that partnered professionals from the fashion world with new up-and-coming designers. It culminated earlier this month with a fashion show in the library lobby.
Otis, who was brought in once the proposal was accepted, said while Brooklyn Public Library is committed to the love of reading and fostering literacy, he believes music is a language.
“We shouldn’t discount music as anything less than a critical language for everyone to be able to find their voice,” he said.
The librarian said he hopes patrons who who always wanted to play an instrument but never had the opportunity, whether for cost reasons or other life obligations, will now have a chance to pick up that guitar or violin confidently.
“Growing up, I never had the best confidence,” Otis said. “So we hope our patrons can really be confident and have an ‘I can’ attitude about learning, like with all of our opportunities here.”
Otis said many library users who have reserved their instruments have also shared their stories with library staff. One patron who requested a keyboard used to have a piano in her apartment, but no longer has the space for it.
Another patron borrowed a ukulele because her parents were visiting from out of town. According to Otis, both of the patron’s parents play the ukulele, so she wanted to surprise them with her own skills.
“We also have lots of parents who have been playing instruments for years, so now they want their children coming of age to learn an instrument,” he said.
Given the popularity of the lending library, most of the instruments have already been booked. The central branch owns five ukuleles, five acoustic guitars, four electronic keyboards, four violins, four drum pads and one drum pad set.
Otis said he hopes the pilot program will become permanent and “expand from here.”
The instrument rental will come with a discount for private lessons, courtesy of the program’s community partner, the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Patrons who borrow an instrument can pay for three lessons with BCM, and get two lessons for free.
Dorothy Savitch, the conservatory’s director of music partners and the music director of the Conservatory Community Orchestra, said the lending library fits in “perfectly” with their mission to transform lives and build community through the “expressive, educational and therapeutic powers of music.”
BCM’s programs reach more than 7,000 New Yorkers every year, Savitch said, including students from 35 local schools. They provide music education to students, including those living at or near the poverty line.
Savitch said her “dream long term” is for the lending library to rent out equipment to kids who don’t have access to the instruments. Many of the schools they work with only have one set of instruments, so students can’t take them home to practice.
Allowing students to practice on their own time allows them to try out the instrument and see how comfortable they feel with it, she said.
“How wonderful would it be if we offered a program where children check out instruments and take them home under their parents’ guidance?” she said. “The learning and enjoyment they would get would quadruple.”
Savitch said she hopes the program will spread to other Brooklyn Public Library branches so residents throughout the borough can have easy access to instruments.
“I think it will stimulate a lot more people studying instruments in any style,” she said. “I think in these days, we need a lot of joy in our lives. We need to build community, and playing an instrument is one of the best ways to do that.”