I'm not really the public-advocacy type, but I've often thought that if I were to advocate anything, it would be the enhancement of library music collections. Yeah, I know, not quite on the same level as voter disenfranchisement or genetically modified food -- but anyone who's combed through the racks of CDs at their local library knows that it's more often than not a sorry sight. Whereas librarians seem to purchase books with certain criteria in mind -- bestseller status, critical reputation, patron interest -- you get the impression that a large portion of the music on the shelves is donated, making it no better than the $1.99 overstock boxes at the used record store, or even the Salvation Army, for that matter. (Why else was I, as a suburban 15-year-old just getting interested in indie rock, able to find the debut album by a minor band like The Dambuilders, who would disappear within a few years, and yet nothing at all by Liz Phair or Pavement or PJ Harvey, all of whom showed up twice in the Pazz & Jop top 10 from 1992–94?)
Part of the reason my concern may sound silly is because things have been bad for so long, library patrons have hardly any expectations when it comes to music. "It's a library, after all: from the Latin librarius, meaning 'of books.'" But since I'm of the opinion that a free musical education is just as valuable as a free literary education, the disparity in attention troubles me. I mean, why even go through the motions of keeping up a record collection if you're not going to make it worthwhile?
Now, I don't expect that my local library is going to stock all the latest Pitchfork-approved indie releases (although if anyone's trying, it's probably people like this). What I do expect is an attempt to offer a wide range of significant, well-respected albums in music history – in other words, an adherence to a canon (while understanding, of course, that canons are always flexible).
In order to see how my library (the vast Chicago Public Library system) fared at meeting this not-very-rigorous standard, I used what I figured was as good a list as any: the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums Ever Made survey that came out late last year. As an accurate summation of the best in recorded music, this list has its fair share of problems, most having to do with its annoyingly rockist tendencies ("it's all about the 60s, maaan"). But for our purposes, the poll's emphasis on the overly enshrined, as well as its attempt at populism (musicians and industry figures voted alongside critics, those pesky elevators of the obscure), mean that it should contain exactly the kind of records you'd expect to find at a library.
As for the results? Well, I have to admit, I was surprised to find that the Chicago Public Library owns 76 of the top 100 albums of all time on compact disc. It owns another 15 on vinyl or cassette -- although I thought this figure was worth separating out, inasmuch as this collection isn't much use to the majority of music listeners in 2004, especially young people, for whom a collection of free music would seem to be the most beneficial. And there are nine albums in the top 100 that the library does not own at all.
I was surprised because I assumed, before I looked at the Rolling Stone list, that the figure would be more like 50% rather than 75%. So the situation was not as bleak as I thought. But let's look at those 24 albums the library doesn't own in the standard compact-disc format:
*available on vinyl
**available on vinyl and cassette
30. Joni Mitchell, Blue*
33. Ramones, Ramones
38. Muddy Waters, Anthology 1947-1972
40. Love, Forever Changes**
44. Patti Smith, Horses
45. The Band, The Band*
50. Little Richard, Here's Little Richard*
53. Ray Charles, The Birth of Soul
55. Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley
58. Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica*
59. The Beatles, Meet the Beatles!**
60. Sly and the Family Stone, Greatest Hits*
61. Guns N Roses, Appetite for Destruction*
71. Neil Young, After the Gold Rush*
74. Otis Redding, Otis Blue
77. The Clash, The Clash**
80. The Zombies, Odessey & Oracle
82. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis: Bold as Love*
83. Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You*
84. Aretha Franklin, Lady Soul*
92. Buddy Holly, 20 Golden Greats*
93. Prince, Sign 'O' the Times
97. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan*
99. Sly and the Family Stone, There's a Riot Going On
I don't begrudge the CPL for not owning the Muddy Waters and Ray Charles albums, both of which are anthologies that I doubt contain many songs not already on the dozens of Waters and Charles records the library does own.
But what about the Ramones debut album, which the SPIN Alternative Record Guide lists as the #1 alternative album of all time? What about Patti Smith's Horses, one of the most influential albums for female rock musicians ever? What about Sign 'O' the Times, anointed by critics as the best record of 1987, or the consensus-best albums by major stars like Otis Redding and Sly and the Family Stone? And what's the deal with keeping platinum sellers like Blue, Appetite for Destruction, and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in a format inaccessible to most library patrons?
When you actually look at what's missing, it's a crime that a city of three million people doesn't in fact possess all of these albums.
As a means of comparison, I checked to see how many of the Modern Library's 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century showed up on CPL shelves. It's not a perfect analogue, of course. One could argue that the Rolling Stone list, by virtue of its editorial interests and readership, ends up being a list of the greatest rock albums ever made and therefore describes a niche market. And while that's not strictly true (Miles Davis and John Coltrane both appear in the top 50), the reason so many rock albums appear on the list is because rock music is, in fact, the dominant musical paradigm of the recorded-music era. Just as Richardson and Fielding perfected the novel as the preeminent long-form literary work, the Beatles are said to have been the first to treat the long-playing record as its own unique artistic form, and not just a way to group a handful of singles.
Anyway, the number of books on the Modern Library top 100 list that the CPL owns? 100.