The Score’s the Thing: Humour and the Absurd in the Music of Brian Cherney: new exhibit

The Marvin Duchow Music Library’s latest exhibition entitled, The Score’s the Thing: Humour and the Absurd in the Music of Brian Cherney celebrates the Canadian composer Cherney’s recent 75th birthday and focuses on five theatrical pieces written over a thirty year span.

Three of the first four works (Tangents I, Group Portrait with Piano and Playing for Time), composed between 1975 and 1981, explore and expand upon several integrated and overlapping themes. Cherney examines, in various humourous and improbable ways, the influence of nineteenth-century Romantic music on late twentieth century performers and composers who share a love for its beauty but also must bear the weight of its unshakable influence. He also critiques classical music performance traditions and pokes fun at the absurd relationships between live performers and seemingly inanimate musical instruments.  The “irrational” and “ghostly” appearances of 19th century musical excerpts and the theatrical conjuring of the composers themselves reinforce expressions of anxiety and ambivalence. The fourth theatre piece from this period is born out of Cherney’s frustration with the lack of live and recorded performances of Canadian music.  In Trois petites pièces, the second movement joins together snippets of traditional music notation with a collage of 19th and early 20th century lithographic images thereby creating a score that is according to the composer, “so visually interesting that it doesn’t need to be played.”   Decades later, Cherney combines the fruits of these early theatrical and absurdist experiments in the 2009 piece entitled Brahms and the German Spirit.  In this extended and complex work he expands his examination of 19th century German high-art music and culture and contrasts it with Jewish musical traditions and history, culminating in the powerful imagery of the Holocaust.

We hope you will take the time to look carefully at the scores and read the small essays or captions (English, French, Yiddish) accompanying each work in the display cases facing the elevators and on the third floor wall north of the Library front entrance. For your convenience, there are also two video performances of Brahms and the German Spirit located on iPads in front of the complete score.

Phonomenal! Rare sides from the history of sound recording

The latest Marvin Duchow Music Library (McGill University) exhibit explores the history of recorded sound through its rare collection of 20th century recordings and related ephemera. Cylinder, shellac, and vinyl records with varying disc and groove sizes, speeds, composition materials, colours and uses offer insight into the evolution of the medium.

Recordings preserve the soundscapes of bygone eras but can also ensure a certain type of immortality. Nipper, the ubiquitous symbol of early commercial recording marketing, illustrates this point rather poignantly. Poised atop of what appears to be a wooden table, he is listening to sound or music through a gramophone. Upon further inspection, the table turns out to be a coffin and the only remaining evidence of Nipper’s master’s voice, is a recording.

Francis Barraud [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


And then there was sound…

Thomas Edison was the first inventor to successfully record and play back sound on a tinfoil-covered cylinder in 1878. After experimenting with materials and playback technology, Edison released the earliest commercially-available recordings on cylinders as early as the 1890s.

Blue Ameberol Cylinder

Blue celluloid with plaster of Paris core, 160 rpm, mono, 200 TPI (threads per inch), vertical cut.

Mr. Edison’s Message (In Morse) to the Telegraph Fraternity. Thomas Edison. Edison Blue Amberol Record, 1920, cylinder.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library



As Edison was working on the development of cylinders and phonographs, Emile Berliner was producing the first recordings on flat discs. The round flat disc would eventually dominate the market, and, as a result, Edison would cease production of his cylinders in 19291.

This 12 inch brown shellac record was released by Berliner Gram-o-phone Co. (Victor Talking Machine Company) circa 1907-1908. Note the use of brown shellac as opposed to the more common black colouring, showing early experiments with coloured discs. Also, this record is recorded on one side only, common to early 78 rpm recordings.


12 inch Brown Shellac Record

Brown shellac, 78 rpm, mono, coarse groove, lateral cut, one-sided.

In a Clock Store (Orth). Victor Orchestra. Walter B. Rogers. Berliner Gram-o-phone Co., Victor Talking Machine Company, 31618, ca. 1907-1908.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library




Lateral vs Vertical Grooves

Most discs are recorded with the stylus cutting lateral grooves (side to side), though some, such as Edison Diamond Discs, Pathé discs, and Muzak 16-inch discs have vertical, or” hill and dale” cut grooves (up and down). Edison Diamond Discs were not only produced using this type of groove modulation, but were also made to play at 80 rpm (revolutions per minute). Although 78 rpm would eventually become the standard, recording speeds varied considerably in the early days of commercial recordings. Also worth noting is the considerable thickness of the Edison Diamond Discs (6 mm as opposed to 2 mm for the average record).


10 inch Edison Diamond Disc Record

Condensite (resin varnish) with wood-flour based core, 80 rpm, mono, fine groove (150 TPI), vertical cut.

Kahn, Gus, Albert E. Short and Del Delbridge. Beside A Garden Wall. Mering, Constance. Edison Record, 11268, 1926.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library



Flexible Discs

There is seemingly no end to the variety of materials which have been used to record sound onto discs. Flexible discs were made with light and pliable materials in order to allow for ease of distribution, and, occasionally, production. Sold at newsstands in the 1930s, “Hit of the Week” cardboard records are early examples of commercially-available “flexible discs”. Vinyl “flexi discs”, such as this Reader’s Digest disc, were produced on thin sheets of vinyl, and inserted in publications such as books or magazines. Among the more unusual materials used to produce flexible discs were discarded X-rays, which were used to produce bootleg recordings of “forbidden” music in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, fittingly dubbed “bone music.”


10 inch Cardboard Record

Cardboard with Durium acetate resin coating, 78 rpm, mono, coarse groove, lateral cut, one-sided.

Vance, Howard. Old New England Moon. Phil Spitalny’s Music. Hit of the Week, 1082, 1930, record. Donaldson. Hello! Beautiful! Sam Lanin’s Dance Ensemble. Hit of the Week, 1136, 1931.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library


7 inch Flexi Disc

Flexible vinyl, 33 1/3 rpm, mono, microgroove, lateral cut, one-sided.

Selections from Country & Western Music Jamboree. Reader’s Digest, Park Lane Recordings, ca. 1960s.

Audiovisual Archives Collection,
Marvin Duchow Music Library


Coloured Records

Since the early days of commercial recording, record companies have used coloured discs (and cylinders) in order to gain a competitive edge in the market. While some used these discs to colour-code certain genres of music within their catalogues, others produced coloured discs for their visual impact alone. Produced during the Great Depression, blue shellac Columbia 78 rpm records were deployed to entice people to purchase recordings during difficult economic times. The purple 10 inch record shown here was issued by the Hot Jazz Club of America Record Company. Not only is the colour rather striking but this record was made at a time when formats and materials were changing. Therefore, not uncommonly so for a record of its time, this disc is made of vinyl, but recorded at 78 rpm.


12 inch Blue Shellac Record

Record Blue Shellac, 78 rpm, mono, coarse groove, lateral cut.

Milhaud, Darius. La Création du Monde. Darius Milhaud and Symphony Orchestra. Columbia, 68094-D, early to mid-1930s.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library




10 inch Purple Vinyl Record

Purple vinyl, 78 rpm, mono, coarse groove, lateral cut.

Morton, Jelly Roll. Smoke House Blues. Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Hot Jazz Club of America, HC 48, recorded 1926, reissued late 1940s.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library



This 16 inch Muzak record stands out not only due to its colour, but also its size. The larger disc surface allowed for music to be played continuously for a longer period of time. The 16 inch format was adopted by radio broadcasters for this very reason. Muzak’s catalogue was colour-coded by genre, “provid[ing] a “red” service featuring dance music and a “purple” service of light concert music.”2 When RCA Victor launched the first 45 rpms discs they also used coloured vinyl to differentiate the various genres in their catalogue: “red for classical, midnight blue for light classics, green for county-western, yellow for children’s music, sky blue for international, and cerise (orange) for R&B.”3


16 inch Red Vinyl LP Record 

Red vinyl, 33 1/3 rpm, mono, coarse groove, vertical cut.

Bill McCune and His Orchestra. Muzak Corporation, W-803, ca. 1950s.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library




7 inch Coloured Vinyl 45 RPM Records

Vinyl, 45 rpm, mono, microgroove, lateral cut.


Symington, Williamson, and Kolgan. When the Ice Worms Nest Again. Wilf Carter and the Calgary Stampeders. RCA Victor, 48- 0139, 1949.

Wieniawski, Henryk. Concerto No.2 in D Minor, Op. 22. The Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia. Mischa Elman. Alexander Hilsberg. RCA Victor, 49-3128, ca. 1949-1951.

Kalitka (At the Garden Gate). Emery Deutsch and his Gypsy Orchestra. RCA Victor, 51-0025, ca. 1949-1951.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library


Picture Discs and Vogue Picture Records

Picture discs feature images on the grooved part of the record, for aesthetic appeal. One short-lived and relatively early example of this are Vogue picture records which were produced from 1946 to 1947 by Sav-Way Industries. Noted for their artist-rendered illustrations, “Vogue picture records were sold individually, as well as in albums containing two records (…). [They] were of a very high quality, with little surface noise. The records were produced using a complicated process whereby a central core aluminum disc was sandwiched between the paper illustrations and vinyl.”4


10 inch Vogue Picture Record

Vinyl coating, paper illustration on aluminum core, 78 rpm, mono, coarse groove, lateral cut.

McCarthy, Tierney. Alice Blue Gown. The Hour of Charm All Girl Orchestra under the direction of Phil Spitalny featuring Evelyn and her Violin. Sav-Way Industries, R725, 1947.

From the private collection
of Cynthia Leive



Instantaneous Recordings

In parallel to the development of commercial recordings, home and “one-off” recordings were made increasingly accessible due to the development of portable disc-cutting lathes which allowed users to produce instantaneous discs. Although these types of recordings were most commonly made on lacquer discs, a number of other materials were used including aluminum. Given their composition, lacquer discs have a high risk of deterioration. Discs were often made by coating a fiber, metal or glass substrate with nitrocellulose. Over time, the castor oil used in the composition of the nitrocellulose coating could leach out, potentially causing a white film of palmitic acid to form on the record, and/or causing the record to delaminate5. Also of interest is the starting point of the playback. This record is to be played from the inside outward and can be found in both commercial and private recordings, though it is not nearly as common as the habitual outside start.

This 10 inch transcription disc was produced as a “one-off” recording by the National Recording and Producing Co., located in the Willis Building (on the corner of St. Catherine and Drummond Streets), a former piano manufacturing plant in Montreal, Quebec.


10 inch Transcription Disc

Lacquer disc with metal substrate, 78 rpm, mono, coarse groove, lateral cut, inside start.

Narration. National Recording and Producing Co., ca. 1940-50s.

Audiovisual Archives Collection, Marvin Duchow Music Library




Phonomenal! Rare sides from the history of sound recording is located at the entrance of the Marvin Duchow Music Library, 527 Sherbrooke Street West, 3rd floor.



1 Edison Blue Amberol Cylinders (1912–1929).” UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. Accessed February 24, 2017.

2 Morton, David. Off The Record (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 175.

3 Granata, Charles L. ―The Battle for the Vinyl Frontier. In 45 RPM: A Visual History of the Seven-Inch Record edited by Spenser Drate, 9. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

4 “What’s a Vogue Picture Record?” The Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors. Accessed February 13, 2017.

5 “Electric Transcription Discs” The Audio Archive. Accessed March 22, 2017.

50th Conference of the Association of Recorded Sound Collections: Recorded Sound in the Twenty-First Century: Preserving, Collecting, Collaborating, Connecting.

For a few days in May, as spring was just beginning to show its colours in Montreal, I had the pleasure and honour of attending the 50th Association of Recorded Sound Collections’ (ARSC) Conference as well as the pre-conference workshops held from May 10th to the 14th at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Indiana University, Bloomington Campus at Night

Indiana University, Bloomington campus at dusk

As reflected in this year’s theme, Recorded Sound in the Twenty-First Century: Preserving, Collecting, Collaborating, Connecting, the conference and workshops brought together industry professionals, librarians, archivists, record collectors and audio enthusiasts to share their knowledge and expertise on a variety of subjects from preservation, restoration, copyright, as well as media and cultural research on a range of musical genres.

The pre-conference workshops served as a primer for the topics which were to be addressed during the week’s conference sessions. Over the course of two busy days, we were invited to participate in a variety of workshops which enabled us to get hands-on experience, as well as an overview of theoretical considerations regarding many aspects of media preservation including phonograph disk playback and digitization, phonograph disc equipment setup and alignment, managing media digitization workflows, open-reel tape machine setup and alignment, open-reel tape playback and digitization, as well as video formats, file types and best practices. These workshops were provided by staff members from MDPI (Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative) at Indiana University and Memnon (a division of Sony, working in partnership with MDPI).

The three-day ARSC conference covered a wide range of topics from historical perspectives on sound recordings to metadata, digitization, emerging technologies, archival practices (from small to large archives, crowd-sourced to institution-based), restoration, preservation and accessibility. A number of the presenters hailed from academic and governmental institutions including the Library of Congress, Indiana University, University of Louisville, Library and Archives Canada, and Rutgers University, as well as a few private firms dealing with media restoration and preservation such as Richard L. Hess Audio Tape Restoration, George Blood Audio, and Meyer Media.

Other highlights from the week included tours of The William and Gayle Cook Music Library at Indiana University, the Archives of Traditional Music (including the Hoagy Carmichael Room), and the MDPI and Memnon facilities.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of ARSC, and, in conjunction with this, a new collective of Women in Recorded Sound was created to unite women working and sharing an interest in recorded sound, whether as archivists, librarians, collectors or general enthusiasts. TWomen in Recorded Soundhe kickoff meeting was held at Nick’s English Hut in Bloomington on Friday, May 13th, and was attended by close to 50 members! This welcome initiative was launched by Maya Lerman, Archivist at American Folklife Center, Library of Congress and Sandy Rodriguez, ‎Digital Special Collections Coordinator, University of Missouri-Kansas City. More information about the Women in Recorded Sound collective is available on the official Twitter page and Facebook group.

A number of social activities were planned during the week, including An Evening at the IU Cinema, also held on Friday the 13th, which was hosted by Rachael Stoeltje (Indiana University) and Matt Barton (Library of Congress). Over the course of the evening, we were treated to a carefully curated selection of films from the IU and LOC vaults. The evening began with Edison “Kinetophone” films from circa 1913. According to Matt Barton, Recorded Sound Curator at the Library of Congress, the Kinetophone films and oversized Edison Blue Amberol cylinders (on which the soundtracks were recorded) were digitized and synchronised before being output to ProRes video for the screening. This impressive restoration was made possible by George Willieman (nitrate film curator at Library of Congress) in collaboration with Gerry Fabris at the Edison site. The evening came to a close (quite appropriately given the date) with a screening of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on pristine Technicolor 35mm film!

In all, the week was rich in both content and presenters and was made even more memorable by the generosity of spirit of ARSC’s members. Not only were they willing to openly share their knowledge and insight, but they were also eager to engage ARSC newbies such as this archivist in conversation and give us a very warm welcome. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Touch Table comes to the Music Library

Touch Table Sign (002)The Library’s newest technology – an Ideum touch table is spending the summer in the Music Library.

The table is showing two exhibitions: complementary audiovisual items for the current John Rea’s Musical Universe exhibition and a carousel of images from Hubert Bédard and Hellmuth Wolff: Visionaries of the Early Keyboard Revival, showcasing organ plans from the Hellmuth Wolff Organ Collection. 

We hope you will stop by and try out the touch table.


Hellmuth Wolff Organ Collection

Over the past few months, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the Hellmuth Wolff Organ Collection at the Marvin Duchow Music Library. My work involved sorting and describing the various items in the Collection such as organ plans, photographs, and other textual documents associated with the activities of the organ building firm Wolff & Associés.

Hellmuth Wolff (1937-2013) was an important and respected organ builder who took a leading role in the revival of historical organ building practices in North America in the early 1960s. Born in Switzerland, he studied and apprenticed in Europe and the United States before he immigrated to Canada in 1963 to work for the company Casavant Frères in St-Hyacinthe, Quebec. In 1968 he established his own atelier, Wolff & Associés, in Laval, and started a productive and influential career as a builder of historically-informed tracker organs. Between 1968 and 2008, Wolff designed, built, and installed fifty instruments in churches, universities, concert halls, and homes across North America.

Redpath Hall Organ, McGill University, Montreal, PQ: Front and side view with cross section

Redpath Hall Organ, McGill University, Montreal, PQ: Front and side view with cross section

The Collection, which is now located and available for consultation at the Marvin Duchow Music Library, consists of organ plans, pamphlets, concert information, photographs, posters, three-dimensional models, periodicals, and correspondence that document the industriousness of Wolff’s workshop, which was active from 1968 until 2012. Of great importance are the organ plans for nearly all of the fifty organs that Wolff built. These range from preliminary sketches to large-scale drawings, and thus form a unique opportunity to study the development of mechanical organ building in North America. The plans also attest to the mastery of Wolff’s craft, as the art of organ building requires a sophisticated familiarity with several disparate fields such as music history, acoustics, architecture, art history, and engineering. Notable organs that Wolff produced include the beautiful instrument at Redpath Hall on the McGill campus, which was completed in 1981, as well as the instrument at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria BC, completed in 2006.

Photograph, Redpath Hall organ, McGill University, Montreal, PQ.

Photograph, Redpath Hall organ, McGill University, Montreal, PQ.

My work also involved curating the exhibition “Hubert Bédard and Hellmuth Wolff: Visionaries of the Early Keyboard Revival,” which will be on display at the Marvin Duchow Music Library until December. This exhibit, which was coordinated with Historical Keyboard Society of North America’s annual Conference held at McGill in May, was meant to showcase some of the items in the Hellmuth Wolff Organ Collection. This involved digitizing and reproducing several of the organ plans, as well as choosing photographs, CDs, and pamphlets for the exhibition.

Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, BC : Drawing of design on the case

Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, BC : Drawing of design on the case

The Hellmuth Wolff Organ Collection provides invaluable insight into the style, construction, and installation of the fifty organs produced by Wolff & Associès over the span of forty years. The Collection is thus an indispensable resource for not only documenting the evolution of Wolff’s style, but also for capturing the activities of a pioneer in the historical keyboard revival and the building of tracker organs in North America.

David Henkelman
Research Assistant

Marvin Duchow Music Library’s Audiovisual Archives Celebrate World Day for Audiovisual Heritage

In celebration of UNESCO’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, the Marvin Duchow Music Library’s Audiovisual Archives opened its doors on Monday, October 27, inviting visitors to learn more about its collections and services, as well as its ongoing preservation efforts.

In addition, special guests Gaétan Pilon and Meggie Savard from the Musée des Ondes Emile Berliner provided a wealth of information regarding the museum’s preservation and conservation efforts, while regaling us with stories of Montreal’s unique audio heritage.

Musee des Ondes Emile Berliner Berliner World Day for Audiovisual Heritage

Gaétan Pilon, President, and Meggie Savard, Development Director, from the Musée des Ondres Emile Berliner

As the preservation of unique performances on obsolete formats is of global concern, the McGill Audiovisual Archives plays a vital role in providing continued access to its unique collection for current and future students, teachers and scholars. In order to shed some light on the precariousness of some of these audiovisual formats, visitors were invited to view a display showcasing a sample of audio and video objects of interest.

Here, we see a few items showing various degrees of deterioration: the long-term effects of fingerprints on a shellac 78 disc, the delamination of an aluminum-based lacquered transcription disc, as well as a CD showing signs of “bronzing”, a form of CD rot.

Unstable formats, deteriorating materials, scarcity of playback equipment and parts in addition to qualified repair technicians are but some of the challenges audiovisual archivists are faced with when it comes to preserving content stored on the multitude of formats typically found in their care.

The open door event in celebration of the World Day for Audiovisual Touring The Past provided us an opportunity to share with our peers, students and faculty the importance of these preservation initiatives as we continue our efforts to ensure the accessibility of our audiovisual collections for generations to come.

Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection

Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection is now preserved in the Marvin Duchow Music Library’s special collections room and is available for consultation. For detailed information about the Collection, please refer to the finding aid on the McGill Music Library website. Certain restrictions apply.

Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection consists of material gathered by former Schulich School of Music Associate Professor of Musicology, Dr. Paul Helmer for his book, Growing with Canada: The Émigré Tradition in Canadian music, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2009. The Collection contains original documentary evidence including interview transcripts and recordings, as well as Dr. Helmer’s notes and drafts for Growing with Canada and copies of primary and secondary sources.

Helmer book

Growing with Canada, jacket cover.

Growing with Canada is an account of the lives and legacy of 121 musicians who emigrated from Europe to Canada between 1933 and 1948.[1] Fleeing racial and political persecution in their home countries, these individuals made a lasting contribution to Canadian music. Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection, then, constitutes an important resource for research in Canadian music culture of the twentieth century. Of particular interest are the interview transcripts described by Robin Elliot, Jean A. Chalmers Chair in Canadian Music at the University of Toronto, as “an invaluable resource of national importance.”[2] The Collection also contains Helmer’s edited transcripts (originally intended to be published in a second volume), audio recordings, and biographical information for each “émigré” musician discussed.

Dr. Helmer’s research files contain many gems for the scholar or the performer interested in Canadian music of the post-war period. As a performing musician, for example, I find Paul Helmer’s diary of notes from his studies with Béla Böszörmenyi-Nagy at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the summer of 1952 particularly fascinating.

Hans Kaufman with "Behind Barbed Wire," 7 March 2001.

Hans Kaufman with “Behind Barbed Wire,” 7 March 2001.

For those interested in the development of post-secondary music education in Canada, there are extensive files on Helmut Blume and Arnold Walter. These two musicians revitalised the Faculties of Music of McGill University and the University of Toronto, respectively, laying the foundation for growth and prosperity in the following decades.

Another important subject broached in Growing with Canada is the internment of “enemy aliens” by the British and Canadian governments during World War II. An unpublished collection of internment camp chronicles by Hans Kaufman entitled “Behind Barbed Wire” sheds light on the lives of internees.

Most importantly, however, the Collection contains the voices of European émigrés who fled racial and political persecution and found a new home in Canada.

The Marvin Duchow Music Library invites those who wish to consult Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection to contact Cynthia Leive, Head Music Librarian.

[1] Helmer uses the word “musician” here “in its widest sense to include not only vocal and instrumental performers, teachers and educators, conductors, and composers, but also music administrators, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, lexicographers, broadcasters, managers and music patrons.” See Paul Helmer, Growing with Canada: The Émigré Tradition in Canadian Music (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 4.

[2] Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada Collection, Box 1, S.1/F.1, i, Marvin Duchow Music Library, McGill University, Montréal, Québec.

Submitted July 28, 2014 by Eric Braley.

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…)