Orchestral librarians often show up to work with a physical list of things that they expect to get completed that day. There is always something to be done to meet a looming deadline, but when you feel you’re starting to fall behind, you set aside a day to do nothing but just knock out the multiple projects on your plate.
You just know that by getting these all done in one day, you will get your schedule back on track, and you will feel good about yourself, and, of course, everyone else will notice your productivity and they will feel good about you, and you can get in your Porsche and drive home to your mansion, to your gorgeous spouse, and feel wonderful about a job well done.
This is the kind of fantasy world we librarians live in. But the most unlikely portion of that fantasy isn’t the Porsche or the mansion—it is thinking that you are going to be left alone to get everything on your list completed.
Why? On the days you plan to be the most productive, those are the days you inevitably spend “putting out fires.” Fires are those last-minute situations that come up that require your immediate attention to resolve. You don’t expect them; you can’t plan for them. But there they are, taking you away from your plan that will get you home to your fantasy spouse.
Fires start out slowly. They usually start with the arrival of a harmless looking email: “Could you take care of this? In the next hour?“ Or: “I forgot to ask, but I need this today.” This is followed a little later by another email—this one with a red exclamation point by it: “Please fix this before the rehearsal starts this morning.” And then, the fires start to spread like—well, wildfire.
Another email comes in; a musician comes in for help; the phone starts ringing; the Maestro wants to see you. You step away from your desk to take care of these, and when you return, 5 more emails are waiting for you. And this is just the beginning.
Of course, these aren’t emergencies in the “real world” definition—I’ve never personally had a musician death from unresolved library work. But to those coming to us for help, they certainly make it seem like it is life or death. And librarians definitely do make the difference for a performer between a stressful performance and a stress-free performance (if there is such a thing). The audience may not hear the difference, but in the mind of a musician, it makes all the difference in the world. And, we sympathize.
Librarians can go days, perhaps even weeks without fires. You planned ahead; you’ve taken care of details; musicians have looked at their music in advance. But when the fires do come, it is almost never just one or two. Before you know it, the entire library is engulfed in flames. (I’m going to milk this metaphor for all it’s worth.)
And, in truth, the majority of these requests are pretty important. Some are easy: repairing or enlarging a part, or fixing a page turn. Some require a little more work: The soloist’s part is a different edition and you have a half hour to resolve the differences in the rehearsal systems. Or, fixing the binding in the conductor’s score.
And some are exasperating: even though we had asked for the information way in advance, a soloist shows up just 12 hours before rehearsal with bowings they wanted put into the orchestral string parts (completely different from what we had).
And some are ridiculous: A musician complains, “My page turn is too loud.” Yeah, we’ll get right on that.
Many fires don’t even have anything to do with rehearsals or repertoire going on that day, but are urgent nonetheless: a last-minute substitute conductor needs a score FedEx’d to them overnight in London.
Taking care of all of these issues is what librarians are there for, of course, and you’re glad to be able to help. But at the end of the day, when you have worked hard being a firefighting hero all day, you’re left with that original list of things to do for upcoming deadlines, with only one item out of ten actually crossed off. You wonder, what just happened?
But, somehow, the work will all get done. And even if the musicians are not always aware of everything we do for them behind the scenes, we’re left with the knowledge that what we do is as important to the final product as what is being done by the musicians on stage. And orchestral librarians take great pride in that.
Just keep a fire extinguisher handy.