The Future of Vinyl Libraries
Exploring the new collection at the Brooklyn Public Library and what it could mean for archiving album art
Growing up as, I dare admit, a millennial, libraries and flea markets have always brought me a sense of comfort. I vividly remember the blue and white facade of the small house that served as my local town library and the giant velvet maroon sitting area at the library in my elementary school. On Sundays in the Spring through Fall, when I wasn’t reading a book, I would patiently follow my dad around our town flea market, where vendors from all over New England would set up tables of antiques and rarities from bygone years.
I witnessed the rise of the internet alongside my trips to informal archives of objects and souvenirs. Troves of niche information were beginning to exist online, free for anyone to explore, including impressionable teenagers like myself. The world wide web was like a virtual library, and you could access anything you wanted at the click of a button. The possibilities were endless.
Now a decade later, in the age of social media, where it’s almost impossible to escape the internet, libraries, vintage shops, and my favorite, the record store act as an antidote and safe haven once again. The ability to discover is present but with the added bonus of spontaneity that the internet lacks. I’ve always viewed vinyl shops as their own sort of musical libraries, but recently, my definition changed when a friend introduced me to the vinyl collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Upon introduction to the collection, I felt the same sense of comfort from my childhood libraries and knew I had to meet the people in charge of the collection. Cue Christine Schonhart, the director of the Central branch, and Andrew Wagstaff, the Supervising Librarian from the NYPL BookOps department. The idea of the collection percolated in Christina’s head in 2021 and became a reality in August 2022 when it launched at the Central branch. With a catalog of about 500 records, the section now serves as a public browsing collection. It gives library members, who may have never interacted with vinyl before, the opportunity to experience the medium in an introductory and historical setting. While growing the collection is an exciting venture, curation is key. Instead of relying on classic hits like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, Schonhart and Wagstaff are constantly updating the collection, introducing new artists and projects to the community due in thanks to local record stores.
When purchasing new items for the catalog, Christine & Andrew will shop at local shops like Human Head and Mixtape and ask the owners to curate an assortment of twenty-five or so records. Turning to the community for their input has yielded a diverse array of records that the librarians wouldn’t normally have gravitated towards, like Mimi Roman’s First of the Brooklyn Cowgirls.
Christine first came into librarianship about 20 years ago as a children’s librarian with a desire to work with the public. Her love for music preempted the idea for a vinyl collection, stating that so many people don’t have the “space, time or money to collect and really dig in” to vinyl. She remembers her first experience interacting with vinyl as a child was at her public library, and now she’s giving children that same opportunity.
Wagstaff started out at the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts branch at Lincoln Center, where they used to have a “massive” public vinyl collection at the turn of the new century. But due to the rapidly changing technology and the advent of CDs, the New York Public Library ended up selling its vinyl collection as a signal of the new vanguard in music listening.
Ironically, one of my dreams is to have the collection that existed at Lincoln Center restored with a twist. Just like the Picture Collection at the New York Public Library’s Bryant Park branch, where you can sort through thousands of individual photos by miscellaneous categories, like clouds, kittens, the color green, etc., how extraordinary would it be to have a library like that dedicated to album covers? Instead of flipping through bins by genre in a record store, we could view covers sorted by photography and illustration; airplanes and cars; blue and green; portraits and landscapes; gatefold and insert. The list goes on!
One of the goals I want to achieve with The Art of Cover Art, as an artist who grew up between the juxtaposition of physical and virtual libraries, is to build an online resource that can grow into a physical one. Besides the numerous Taschen books dedicated to album art, 1000 Record Covers, Art Record Covers, Rock Covers, etc., there isn’t much literature archiving the history of album art. But now that a vinyl collection like the one at Brooklyn Public Library has been created, we might be one step closer.
With Central’s successful pilot collection, smaller branches have expressed interest in starting their own vinyl collections, like the Adams St. branch, which currently has its own monthly album listening program. Thanks to Wagstaff’s team at BookOps, the logistical parts of creating a whole new catalog system are already in place.
Before wrapping up, I asked Christine and Andrew about their favorite album cover moments throughout history. Andrew highlighted some campy food-related gatefolds like ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres and Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers, while Christine spotlighted the work of designer and art director Peter Saville who created covers for the likes of New Order and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark alongside many Factory Records acts.
Some housekeeping: I started using Substack’s new platform, Notes. If you’re looking for inspiration in between newsletters, I’ve been posting record store finds and some of my own work on there. So far, it’s been a great way to share and connect with the community beyond newsletters. I’ve included it as a tab on the homepage.
Also, in the hopes that libraries will forever continue to inspire children and the children within us, I hope you’ll take the time to consider donating to your local library, whether that may be Brooklyn or beyond.
The Art of Cover Art is a free educational and inspirational resource. If you have $5/ month to spare, it would be very helpful in furthering my research. Or, if you think a friend might enjoy this newsletter, the best way to pay it forward is by sharing!
I hope you are able to take a pilgrimage to Memphis some day to visit the Memphis Listening Lab.
My mom was a librarian so I basically grew up at a library. The public library where she worked had a couple of hip librarians who ordered the records. That was the first time I saw albums by Leonard Cohen, Killing Joke, Low Budget by the Kinks, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, and more. You could borrow headphones and listen to the albums at the library or check them out and listen at home (and perhaps copy to cassette).