“The Library must go beyond the traditional image we have of it” (Ville de Paris)

Rachel Rowntree 18/05/2020

Musical Instruments available for loan – free of charge. An ambitious new project from the Ville de Paris.


Stepping off the bustling Rue de Bagnolet and into the Médiathèque Marguerite Duras in Paris’ 20tharrondissement is to arrive in an oasis of culture. It alreadyhouses an auditorium, an exhibition space and an accessiblereading section, providing books adapted for blind and deaf readers. In addition, it is now one of the four Parisian libraries offering musical instruments to borrow: “it’s as easy as taking out a book!” one of the librarians explains.

The idea of libraries loaning musical instruments is not totally new in France. In Angers, Rouen, Toulouse or in Seine St-Denis, instruments such as acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, ukuleles, and djembes can be taken home from the library. What makes the new initiative from the Ville de Paris stand out is the variety of instruments on offer.

The project is funded entirely by the Budget Participatif and as the Ville de Paris explains: “it is a project ‘Tout Paris’, meaning it is not localised to certain areas, and that has allowed us to deploy the project in libraries across the city.” Since November 2019, musical instruments are available at the bibliothèque Buffon (5e), and the médiathèques Hélène Berr (12e), Marguerite Yourcenar (15e) and Marguerite Duras (20e).

For many, the cost of buying a musical instrument is simply too expensive. Now, with just a Parisian library card, borrowers can choose from a diverse selection of instrument: balafons, theremins, banjos, keyboards, and even trumpets, trombones and clarinets. In addition, sets of percussion instruments and synthesizers are on offer. Further resources are being provided to help people learn an instrument for the first time. The Ville de Paris explains: “it becomes complementary to our digital tools; for example we will be offering music learning resources online.”

The project has seen an immediate success: “when the instruments are booked more than once on the the first day they are made available, we see this project is responding to a need in the community” affirms the Ville de Paris. Occasionally an instrument is damaged or goes missing, but this is not dimming the success of the project: “sometimes an instrument disappears. It’s unfortunate and expensive, but it is the price of the success of the project.”  

Adding an instrument collection to a library demands commitment and engagement from those working there. Musical instruments need to be maintained and cared for and this has now become part of the librarians’ job. The Ville de Paris says “our librarians are responsible for the upkeep of the instruments, for which they receive training”. They further comment: “this also provides a management opportunity; to make sure we keep our employees interested and advancing in their careers.”

The Ville de Paris hopes that the instrument loan scheme will help modernise the image of the municipal libraries: “We still have an image that libraries simply house books. The modern library must go beyond the traditional image we have of it.”

Around the world musical instrument loan schemes are not only helping libraries revitalise their services but are helping build communities. In Canada, thanks to the support of Sun Life Financial, instrument lending libraries are now available in ten cities across the country.  In a phone interview, Miranda Huska, Head of the Parkdale Library in Toronto, describes how the loan scheme is challenging the public’s idea of what a library is:“they’re not really hush hush quiet places anymore!” she says laughing: “the libraries are really centres for the community, a real gathering place”. A monthly concert series ‘Live in the Library’ has been established.  The local ‘Sistema’ ensemble have been invited to perform, as well as a Syrian Refugee choir, a mariachi band, folk groups and chamber music: “we try to mix it up!” she says.

The decision to place instruments in the Parkdale branch, was a deliberate choice to make the instruments as accessible as possible. The library is located in what is known as a ‘priority neighborhood’. These are areas with significant numbers of vulnerable populations, seniors, newcomers, and people on limited income. Ms Husker elaborates:  “we really do see the impact in the community; we get very positive feedback from people who never have an opportunity to buy or play an instrument until now.”

The silence has also been broken in England at Manchester’s Henry Watson Music Library. Since 2014 a selection of guitars, electric keyboards and electric drum kits are available for the public to use on the premises. One evening a week the library holds a ‘jam’ session: “this is a free, drop in session for a couple of hours that anyone can come along to and join in using our instruments or they can bring their own”, writes Lynn Hall, one of the library assistants. Manchester is renowned it’s for clubbing scene. The library also offers the use of a mixing desk and synthesizers, Ms Hall continues: “we tend to get regular users who come in often, hopefully some of them will go on to greater things!”  

New York’s first ever instrument lending library opened in 2018 and is found in Brooklyn. 1500 instruments are currently in circulation with on average, two instruments being checked per day, according to Fritzi Bodenheimer, the library’s Press Officer. She writes: “the library even has a recording studio; it is incredibly popular, booked day and night for all sorts of projects from podcasting recordings to musical recordings. The band All My Friends Are Starsrecorded their entire album in the studio.”

It is exciting to see some of the Parisian libraries joining an already vibrant community of musical instrument loan schemes. It had been hoped that the libraries Lancry (10e), Melleville (13e) and Hergé (19e) would also have their own collections by this spring. However COVID-19 has put the brakes on this project for now. As musical instruments are difficult to disinfect, the instruments will not be available immediately when the libraries reopen. However, the project will continue. The Ville de Paris anticipates developing it further through making links with the MPAA (Maison des Pratiques Artistiques Amateurs) and even perhaps being able to add some new instruments such as ouds and sitars.


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