A few years ago, I had an interesting conversation with a farmer about a study I was then conducting on academic research practices. “That’s interesting about academics,” she said, “but what about how farmers do research?” This was a very special farmer, an authority on community-supported agriculture and a noted speaker and author: Elizabeth Henderson (check out her book: Sharing the Harvest). We talked some more and, with great enthusiasm, Liz told me about the sources of information she found useful and reliable in her farming and writing and how she looked for them. It was a memorable conversation, and I was inspired to start asking people about the research they do because they care, because the questions really matter to them, because there is information they simply must have.

The conversation also piqued my interest in “unusual” information, that is, in all manner of warranted but not necessarily text-based sources, the kind that a farmer might find very useful. Or a musician. For musicians, musical scores, performances, recordings, and other non-texts are vital resources. When I had an opportunity to include a musician and composer in a subsequent study, I jumped at the opportunity and became acquainted with new ways to browse—going to concerts, flipping through scores—and distinctive criteria for evaluating sources—fidelity of a score, auditory quality of a recording, and so on.

A recently published article by Nara Newcomer, David Lindahl, and Stephanie Harriman of the University of Missouri–Kansas City provides great insight into the use of these non-text resources, the criteria students apply to them, and the ways they seek and find them.[1] It reports on a study of UMKC music and dance students that looked specifically at their information-seeking practices and “especially what students use, avoid, and wish for in library spaces and services” (p 18). The results will inform the design of a library within a new arts campus that UMKC is building in downtown Kansas City.

The study used photography as its method. Six students—undergrads and graduate students—were asked to take pictures and were then interviewed about them. The photos, similar to those we requested in the University of Rochester’s “Studying Students” project,[2] included “Your music collection,” “A piece of music that you like,” “Your desk,” “Cool technology,” and 16 other prompts. While the study was undertaken to support the design of new spaces and much of the article deals with space-related issues, the article covers a wide range of issues related to the work practices and needs of musicians and dancers in the academy. I was particularly interested in what they had to say about seeking and using scores and recorded music and performances.

For the music students in the study, doing good work entailed finding good music: new music, unusual or uncommon music, high quality music, accurately transcribed music, and, above all, available music, sometimes in multiple versions. Students made heavy use of online music services, such as Spotify. They also searched and browsed in other places, including tangible and digital library collections and even a friend’s personal collection of LPs. Dance students also sought a wide assortment of documentation, including recorded dance performances, both in the library and online from a variety of sites and services.

The students’ enthusiasm for music and dance comes through clearly in the interview snippets provided in the article. Note the charming “ooh” in the following remark by a music student: “[If] I’m looking for something specific, I will look it up on the computer. However, otherwise, I’ll just kind of wander around. It’s like, ‘OK, it looks like I’m around scores for masses, so, ooh, I wonder if they have Missa Solemnis here’” (p. 31).

Here is another example: Dance students love to watch ballet videos. As one participant said in the interview, “Well, me and my best friend, we … go and she has videos of the Royal Ballet, or ABT [American Ballet Theatre] or PNB [Pacific Northwest Ballet] performing all different ballets that she’s purchased, and so, I would say, almost every Saturday night, go over there, we’ll eat a rotini or something and we’ll basically just watch the ballet and critique it, just be loud and obnoxious dancers” (pp. 49-50).

The UMKC students have already benefited from the study, as the librarians quickly addressed some of the problems the study uncovered. For example, they tucked new signs in among the shelves of pamphlet-like scores, helping students browse and find the score they need while they learn a bit more about the classification system.

The article touches on all sorts of interesting topics (sound-proof rooms, browsing scores for good composition ideas, scholarly sociality). I particularly like the way it supports an expansive view of worthwhile resources and suggests that, in addition to the historians and biologists and other usual suspects, musicians’ and dancers’ information needs merit study and attention. To which I would simply add: Farmers, too.

[1] Nara L. Newcomer, David Lindahl, and Stephanie A. Harriman, “Picture the Music: Performing Arts Library Planning with Photo Elicitation,” Music Reference Services Quarterly, March 15, 2016, 10.1080/10588167.2015.1130575. Full disclosure, Dave Lindahl and I worked together at the University of Rochester for nine years.

[2] Judi Briden, “Photo Surveys: Eliciting More Than You Knew to Ask For,” in Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester, eds. Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2007), 40–47,  http://hdl.handle.net/1802/7520. See also Judi Briden and Sarada George, “Picture My Work,” in Studying Students: A Second Look, ed. Nancy Fried Foster (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries), 25–44, accessed May 21, 2016, http://hdl.handle.net/1802/28781.