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The Art of Being a Cool Librarian

Music Librarian Steven Kemple strives to keep the library relevant through experimental programming

By Steven Rosen · September 18th, 2013 · Cool Issue
coolissue_stevenkemple_jfPhoto: Jesse Fox
The media revolution — moving from physical forms of delivery like print, CDs and DVDs to virtual ones like the Internet, cloud services and video streaming — challenges libraries to stay relevant and draw patrons.  

But Steven Kemple, music librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s Main Library, has the answer: Don a gorilla suit. 

Well, that’s one of his answers. He keeps such a suit in his office and wears it for some of the events he organizes — such as a screening last year of the silent vampire film Nosferatu, during which experimental musicians creating an improvised soundtrack as it played. “I wore my gorilla suit to that, as if I had a choice,” he says, sitting in the sunny lounge area of the Downtown building’s first-floor Popular Library department.

There’s a serious reason behind everything Kemple is doing with music programming at the Main Library, even if it sometimes means wearing the gorilla suit he got as a wedding present three years ago. He’s championing libraries as a source for experimentalism — a place to “blow minds,” in his words — and is part of a national movement to do so, having been featured on the blog “Library as Incubator Project” early this year for his experimental music series.

“I see being a librarian as not that different from being an artist or running a gallery,” he explains. “When I talk about blowing minds, I don’t necessarily mean in the sense of cheap gags or thrills, but really turning people on to how vast and amazing the world is. 

“One function of public libraries is to foster an informed citizenry. Part of getting people informed is to get people curious, and curiosity begins with wonder — and blowing minds is a great way of cultivating wonder. Experimentalism in the library creates incongruous situations that, presented in the right way, can elicit wonder.”

Among his free programs has been the bi-monthly Listen to This! series, where you can hear anything and everything within the Main Library’s collection of some 120,000 CDs and 12,000 vinyl records. Past ones have been devoted to North Korean music, scat singing and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (not together). 

Beginning on Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. and continuing thereafter on the second Wednesday of each month, one of the two monthly Listen to This! programs will be devoted to presentations by local music historian David (“Uncle Dave”) Lewis. The first is about W.C. Peters, a 19th-century Cincinnati-based composer and music publisher. 

Kemple also has live-music/performance-art events that promote the Library’s underappreciated experimental-music holdings. A big one coming up is the Oct. 16 performance of percussionist/composer Michael Gordon’s widely hailed Timber by contemporary music ensemble the nief-norf Project.

And he’s also started the Library’s system-wide CD of the Month Club, in which he chooses and sends CDs to participating cardholders, based on their interests.

Begun in March, it now has 500 participants and is growing. 

Other Cincinnati librarians also do programming; the Main Library is a veritable Garden of Eden for scheduled activities. But, according to Popular Library Manager David Siders, Kemple — who took the music librarian position last year — brings something special. “Steve has a strong ability to connect people to the lesser-known aspects of our vast music collection. And attendance has increased dramatically.”

Kemple certainly has a sense of humor about his programming. He hurriedly scheduled a North Korean music night after Dennis Rodman made headlines visiting that country. But Kemple also backed it up with a well-researched presentation that delved deeply into the Main Library’s collection of recordings. “After I got the idea, I thought, ‘I bet we don’t have any music from Korea.’ But sure enough, we do,” he says.

Kemple, 28, started working at the library while he was studying painting at Art Academy of Cincinnati and a member of now-disbanded provocative artist co-op CS13, which merged art-making and social activities, such as a combination art-history lecture and a bike ride. “It introduced me to relational aesthetics, the overlap between the things libraries do and things artists do,” he says.

But another key influence was the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program scholarship he received to participate in Kent State University’s School of Library and Information Science program in “Youth Services, Librarians, and Museums – A New Vision of Learning.” It led to a master’s degree in library and information science. “It was a really intense, amazing experience,” he wrote in a follow-up email to the interview. “In addition to getting the education to become a librarian, they really encouraged us to think outside the box and become leaders in the field.”

He’d also like to pursue using the library as an ongoing performance-art site. Cincinnati artist Lindsay Whittle recently set up a mobile studio in the Popular Library lounge and then did performances in the department. “I’d like to have other performance artists come in,” Kemple says. “My idea would be to have them in residence, at any given time working with what’s here.”



The online form for joining the CD of the Month Club is at cincinnatilibrary.org/spotlight/CDofthemonth.aspx. If readers include their email address when they sign up, Kemple will also add them to his mailing list. If anyone wants to only receive his monthly email updates, contact him at steven.kemple@cincinnatilibrary.org.


The following are upcoming experimental-music performances at the Main Library, all of which start at 7 p.m.:

Sept. 18   John Collins McCormick (Indianapolis) and David (Uncle Dave) Lewis with Troy Gallagher and Wrest (Easton, Penn.). Popular Library lounge.

Sept. 25   Freeman/Borden/Cain Trio (New York). Popular Library lounge.

Oct. 9   W.C. Peters (with Jeremy Stevenson). 

Oct. 16   nief-norf Project presents Michael Gordon’s Timber. Reading Garden lounge.

Nov. 20   Art Damage: A Retrospective (panel discussion). Popular Library lounge.

Dec. 18   Us Today + Feldi. Popular Library lounge.

Upcoming 7 p.m. Wednesday evening presentations by music historian David (“Uncle Dave”) Lewis:

Nov. 13   The Hymn Composers of Cincinnati, Philips, Bliss and Doane. 

Dec. 11   Cincinnati Ragtime (with Jeremy Stevenson).

Jan. 8   The Ohio Phonograph Company (with Patrick Feaster of Indiana University).

Feb. 12   Earl Fuller, Cincinnati’s Daddy of Jaz (with one “z”).

March 12   The Rodeheaver Record Company in Cincinnati; the New York Recording Co. 

April 8   Cincinnati Entertainment Pioneers   Billy Golden, Arthur V. Johnson, Theda Bara, Harry Richman, Libby Holman. 

June 11   Bix Beiderbecke and the Original Wolverines.

July 9   Cincinnati Jazz and Dance Music of the 1920s. 

Aug. 13   Early Radio in Cincinnati 1922-1945. 

Sept. 10 (2014)   Larry Vincent, Party Record King.

 
 
 
 

 

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