Threshold concepts and music information literacy

In 2000 the Association of College and Research Libraries published a document, “Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education,” which quickly became the foundation of 21st-century library instruction. That document is now undergoing a radical revision.

The old standards define “the information literate individual” as someone who can identify when information is required; efficiently locate relevant, high quality information to address this need; and incorporate new information ethically into her own creation. A lengthy checklist of specific practices draw a composite sketch of this individual. To mention only 3 of the over 50 characteristics, the information literate student “confers with instructors and participates in class discussions,” “identifies keywords, synonyms and related terms for the information needed,” and “legally obtains, stores, and disseminates text, data, images, or sounds.”

These standards have been incredibly useful for librarians as they collaborate with faculty to arm students for success in the information age, but as my examples above may suggest, they could also raise obstacles. They are extremely prescriptive and task-oriented. Given the number of habits the information literate student is meant to adopt, the challenge of producing one at the end of 4 years of post-secondary education was well nigh impossible. The concept of information literacy was rigidly contained within its hierarchy of standards, performance indicators, and outcomes.

The proposed new framework, now available in 2 draft sections, takes an entirely different tack. It adopts the pedagogical approach of “threshold concepts.” Threshold concepts are (to quote the glossary found at the end of the 1 draft document) “core or foundational concepts that, once grasped by the learner, create new perspectives and ways of understanding a discipline or challenging knowledge domain.” Instead of dictating a master set of skills that defines the information literate person, the new framework presents 6 fundamental ideas that act as the passage from novice to expert in the understanding of our information environment. These are:

  • Scholarship is a conversation
  • Format as process
  • Research as inquiry
  • Searching is strategic
  • Authority is constructed and contextual
  • Information as commodity (This concept has not yet been released but was mentioned at the recent online consultation held by the chairs of the ACRL task force charged with the revisions, Craig Gibson and Trudi E. Jacobson.)

What’s reassuring is that all these concepts already percolate through the instruction I do at McGill thanks in large part to the exemplary models of my colleagues in the Schulich School of Music faculty. “Scholarship is a conversation” is one of the core principles music students are introduced to in first-year history classes. One of my favourite exercises with students explores threshold concept #2. We brainstorm as many sources of information useful to the music scholar and I shock them with the admission that as a librarian I can see value in all of them. There’s information to be gained from any source – from the shoddiest vanity press publication to the most authoritative peer-reviewed title – it all depends on knowing one’s question, critically evaluating the sources and their relevance to the question, and deploying the evidence in a reasoned way in whatever new creation one produces as a result of the inquiry. i also love exploring the mechanisms (for example, comparing the peer review process with Wikipedia’s “world brain” philosophy) that shape the information we take in daily.

So while the information literacy conversation shifts – for the better I hope – the fundamentals remain surprisingly consistent. I look forward to more conversations on this topic with my colleagues at McGill, across the country (here’s a shout-out to Laura Snyder’s forthcoming presentation on “Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy for Music” at this year’s CAML conference), and internationally through MLA (here’s hoping the Public Services Committee’s plenary proposal on the revised ACRL framework and the future of MLA’s own “Information Literacy Instructional Objectives for Undergraduate Music Students” is accepted…)


Hear the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for music on Naxos Music Library

Every April, the Pulitzer Prizes for excellence in American journalism and arts are announced. The music award is given “[f]or distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.” This year’s winner is multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and composer Caroline Shaw, who at age 30 is the youngest recipient in the award’s history. Her work, Partita for 8 Voices, was developed in collaboration with the new music ensemble Roomful of Teeth (which includes recent McGill graduate Esteli Gomez) and incorporates a broad range of vocal styles from Inuit and Tuvan throat singing to pop vocals and traditional American hymn singing. You can find the piece on Shaw’s site (both recording and score excerpts). Listen to the entire Roomful of Teeth recording on Naxos Music Library. The first live performance (2009) of Movement IV: Passacaglia is captured on YouTube.

BnF Music department card catalogue now searchable online

Just announced today: A significant improvement for all who are interested in research at the Music department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. 560, 538 card catalogue records dating from the 16th century to 1991 are now searchable via the Library’s online catalogue: Online access just became a lot easier!

Here are more details from Laurence Decobert of the BnF:

“The ressources described – manuscript and printed music, treatises, methods, critical works, archives, programs, newspaper cuttings – entered the Library between the 16th century and 1991. They enable to study a definite work – from its conception to its reception – as well as researches on French musical life, edition and diffusion of sheet music, organology, performer’s work and social condition of musicians.

“Readers will find, among other ressources, the rich collection of canon Sébastien de Brossard (1655-1730), rare musical editions and treatises of the 15th and 16th century, the quite complete production of 19th musical French edition as well as working libraries of composers, performers or musicologists.

“This project will be presented at the next IAML Conference in Vienna by Sophie Renaudin, in charge of this retroconversion.”

Beck’s Song Reader: Recording or Score?

Coming soon to the Music Library: Beck’s latest album, Song Reader. A library user’s request brought the album to my attention. It’s a novel approach to a sound recording: Beck produces the sheet music and you, the fans, produce the performances. You can read more about the project and watch selected interpretations at

I wonder where we’ll put it in the Music Library collection. Do we respect the author’s vision of the work and classify it as sound recording or do we ignore the larger context and deal only with the portion that we collect, that is the sheet music? Then again, how is Beck’s work any different from a score produced by Beethoven or Monteverdi other than its new conceptual frame. We’ll definitely link to the related site from the catalogue record. Watch the library catalogue for its ultimate classification. We’ll depend on our intrepid music cataloguer’s judgement!

Informing practice with historical context

The Schulich School of Music is that rare institution that specializes in more than one aspect of the discipline: music performance meets theory meets composition meets technology meets psychology…. And the Music Library loves to enrich those connections as a place where students, professors, and professionals meet and discover collections and facilities that serve the diverse needs of Montreal’s music community.

Papageno from the Puppenballett des Marionettentheaters Schloss Schönbrunn

Just one serendipitous example came through my email today where musicology and performance intersect. Of special interest to the Opera McGill students preparing for the March 2013 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute: Opera Quarterly‘s current issue dedicated to the opera.

The contents start with Mozart’s contemporary Goethe and trace the reverberations of The Magic Flute through history:

Here are the articles:

“‘The Monstrous Rights of the Present’: Goethe and the Humanity of Die Zauberflöte
Jane K. Brown

“Live Marionettes and Divas on the Strings: Die Zauberflöte’s Interactions with Puppet Theater”
Martin Nedbal

“(De)Translating Mozart: The Magic Flute in 1909 Paris”
William Gibbons

“‘So Take This Magic Flute and Blow. It Will Protect Us As We Go’: Impempe Yomlingo (2007–11) and South Africa’s Ongoing Transition”
Sheila Boniface Davies, J. Q. Davies

“Papageno Redux: Repetition and the Rewriting of Character in Sequels to Die Zauberflöte
Hayoung Heidi Lee

“Who Were the Drei Knaben?”
Adeline Mueller

Happy reading!

Academic integrity in the Music Library

To assist with the  Schulich School of Music’s first-year orientation process, I’ve identified a few resources that deal with academic integrity. Entering a new academic environment with expectations of research can be bewildering for new students, so having a few guidelines can help clarify expectations.

What I really appreciate about the School of Music is its emphasis on academic integrity as a characteristic of good scholarly citizenship. A student, when writing a paper, making a presentation, or giving a lecture-recital, is joining a ongoing scholarly conversation. Acknowledging one’s sources is an act that shows respect for one’s listener/reader and for the experts one has drawn on. It also compels respect for the new author who engages ethically with the conversation.

Here are a few resources we in the Library recommend for starting off on the right foot:

  • Music style guides and citation manuals
    A subject guide compiled by the Music Library staff with lists of resources that deal with the thorny issues of dealing with music in print or in presentations.
  • Charles Lipson’s book Doing Honest Work in College (on reserve in the Music Library)
    An easy-to-read, clear overview of note-taking techniques, paraphrasing, quotation, and bibliographic citation, with a summary of correct citation style for the principal types of sources (books, journal articles, sections of books, etc.) in a variety of styles including Chicago, MLA, and APA.
  • McGill academic integrity: Keeping It Honest
    The scenarios section of this online tutorial brings up issues beyond paper-writing, which might prove eye-opening for students. See how the principle of academic integrity applies in various situations, such as exams, group work, homework, lab reports, etc.

And remember to speak with your profs, TAs, or a library staff member for any clarification.

New thematic catalogue of Schubert Lieder

I made a felicitous discovery late yesterday while scanning the Library’s new acquisitions shelf: Schubert Liedlexikon, prepared by Walther Dürr, Michael Kube, Uwe Schweikert, and Stefanie Steiner. It’s a wonderful new thematic catalogue of all of Schubert’s songs. Following Otto Erich Deutsch’s indexing of Schubert’s works, the book arranges the songs chronologically by date of composition. Each entry provides the title, Deutsch number, name of poet, a thematic incipit, the full text (with German translations of those few foreign-language texts Schubert set), and a brief discussion of the text and music. A brief closing note gives the vocal range of the piece (in the original key), its location in both the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe (the more recent Schubert collected works edition) and the 7-volume Peters edition, source of the original text, and a brief bibliography for further reading.

REF ML134 S38 A26 2012

In the appendix you’ll find brief bios of the poets with a list of their settings by Schubert. Three indices provide further access to people, both mythological (Achilles) and real (J. R. Zumsteeg), song titles, and authors of the entries.

Being a Bärenreiter publication, the type and presentation are immaculate and the music excerpts are compact but legibly reproduced. Highly recommended for students and lovers of Lied who read German!


Personal Librarian Project

The Music Library is expanding a program it launched last year, the Personal Librarian Project. This project aims to pair each incoming music student with a music librarian. Last year, we approached only undergraduate students; this year we’re reaching out to new graduate students as well. Our hope is that having a personal contact will encourage new students to explore the variety and depth of resources available at McGill and gain greater confidence in their use of the Library as they move through their studies.

Of course, the project benefits the Library as well. Conversations with students keep us alert to their research and performance interests. This knowledge helps the Library staff make informed decisions about services, facilities, and collection development.

If you’re a new student, keep an eye out for an email invitation from your Music Library librarian. And returning students, we are looking forward to continuing our conversations with you as well!