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Hang Out with the Arts: Eclectic staff, new media resources attract a creative mix to the Fine Arts Library

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If you want to talk theater, breathe music, drink in dance or immerse yourself in art, you might think you need a ticket to New York City or Los Angeles. Not so. At the Fine Arts Library on The University of Texas at Austin campus, the creative takes center stage.

The library boasts a compact disc collection numbering more than 40,000, one-of-a-kind art books, musical scores (complete with pianos for those who want to plop right down and give them a spin), exhibition catalogs and one of the largest historical sound recording collections in North America.

View of the circulation desk at the Fine Arts Library, with the collection of 40,000 compact discs in the background
The library’s collection of 40,000 compact discs can be glimpsed behind the circulation desk.

And it’s populated by an eclectic group of cool and artsy librarians who make sure that the arts don’t simply stay tucked in the stacks. They permeate the very vibe of the place.

“We want people to communicate about the arts as much as possible,” says Laura Schwartz, Fine Arts head librarian. “One of the qualifications we look for when we hire people is that they have a fine arts background as well as a library background.”

The result is an assortment of creative types who paint, sculpt, play rock music, animate films, mount operas, write dance reviews, direct early music concerts and perform in theater festivals.

For the university and the community, this means they throw open doors to the arts.

“I rely on these artistic sensibilities to keep up the energy by playing great music and for reference questions, because they care enough about the collections to remember what’s in them,” Schwartz says. “It’s such an interesting place.”

It’s been so since 1979, when the library opened, bringing the disciplines of visual arts, music, drama and dance into one space. In the Doty Fine Arts building just across the street from the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the library’s floor-to-ceiling windows offer fabulous views of the Tower and the stadium. What happens inside just keeps getting better.

Libraries are an evolving entity, and the days of hushed seriousness and buttoned-up cardigans, if they ever existed, are in the past.

“What’s that you’re playing?” a patron at the Fine Arts Library may ask a librarian when he hears the music coming from the processing area behind the front desk.

An overhead view of the main floor of the Fine Arts Library, with the hanging piano sculpture in the background
An overhead view of the main floor of the library, with its trademark hanging piano.

He might be answered by Adam Hatley, a founding member of Those Peabodys, an Austin-based rock band that has toured the country and Europe and has released two popular albums. Hatley keeps the music fresh on the road and in the library, too. More often than not, when someone asks about the music, he or she then checks out the CD shortly thereafter.

As a musician, Hatley knows his knowledge can often rescue a library visitor.

“It can be as simple as knowing that someone just needs a little piece of one song by someone they don’t know about,” he says. “Knowing so much about music and bands helps because even if it comes down to knowing what a cover of an album looks like, I know it. The same is true of Holly and the artists.”

Holly is Holly Fisher, painter, muralist, animator and shift supervisor at the library. A recent participant on the East Austin Studio Tour and an animator who has worked twice with filmmaker Richard Linklater, Fisher says she’s done every job she can think of, from cleaning toilets to being a caterer’s assistant to hanging drywall, to support herself as an artist.

“This is the closest I can get to the ideas that I want to be thinking about all the time, and I still feel like I’m serving people and serving the community,” she says.

“Being here, you feel like the art is your own possession. At the same time, you feel like you can really share it with people as well. That’s not a substitute for doing your own work, but it keeps you connected.”

Being connected has long been the work of libraries, where information and those who can use it are united. As libraries evolve, being connected means other things as well—Internet access, comfortable spaces where people can collaborate and the latest technology.

The Fine Arts Library recently underwent a renovation that brought new moveable furniture, chairs with tablet arms upon which to place laptops, additional multimedia workstations and viewing/listening room facilities.

Man reads magazine in periodicals section of the Fine Arts Library
The most up-to-date information from the global arts world can be found in the library’s extensive periodical collection.

Patrons can check out digital cameras and portable CD players as well as keyboards that can be used to compose electronically. They can digitize an LP onto a CD or scan an image and manipulate it in Photoshop.

They can also come and browse and touch the material. For artists, that means flipping through art books. For musicians, playing the first bars of a score. For theater artists, watching a digitized performance while holding the original script in their hands.

“There are probably three or four other libraries in the country that bring all these disciplines into one space,” Schwartz says. “So these different people are influencing each other in positive ways. We’ve seen people meet here and end up creating a production together.

“It really creates a climate for the exchange of ideas.”

This is the type of climate Austin, long considered one of the country’s most creative cities, has been known for. And the Fine Arts Library contains the city’s richest holdings in music, art, theater and dance. Lots of people outside the university have already caught on.

At the library, you might see bluesman Clifford Antone browsing the CD collection or local bands like The Damnations seeking art for the cover of their new album.

Less famous citizens come too. Schwartz talks of a patron named John who frequents the library to feed his hunger for Southwestern art, including pottery and textiles from New Mexico and Arizona. He digs deep into the library’s collection to discover new works.

As at all of the university’s libraries, materials are available for check out to the Austin community with a UT Libraries courtesy borrower card. People can also take advantage of the less obvious resources contained in the varied and interesting library personnel for free.

Students work together at a table in the Fine Arts Library
Collaboration is an everyday event at the Fine Arts Library.

They might find themselves discussing Baroque music with Daniel Johnson, artistic director of the Texas Early Music Project, a group dedicated to preserving 700 years of music. An international performer and recording artist, Johnson directs five to six performances a year and teaches in San Francisco and other cities. He’s been at the Fine Arts Library since 1984.

Library visitors seek Johnson’s unique expertise all the time, and that expertise is reflected in the library’s rich holdings in Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical music. He often works alongside Lara Britton McElroy, an opera singer who processes library materials and sings in Texas Early Music Project productions. Johnson says two decades at the library have been critical to him doing his work.

“Almost everyone who has worked here has been of like mind and had an artistic spirit,” he says.

That spirit is clear at the library. You’ll find patrons sitting in the new blue booths, seeking out obscure artists in the stacks, tracking down the doctoral recording of a now-famous alumnus or checking on that hip music they hear coming from behind the desk.

“The library provides a comfortable environment for people to be creative and look for inspiration,” Schwartz says. “They’re not only coming here for inspiration from the materials that we have. They’re coming here to talk to Adam, to Danny, to Holly, to find out the latest things that they’re working on and tell them about their own projects.

“I think of them as a resource just as much as the materials themselves.”

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTOS: Christina Murrey

OVERHEAD PHOTO of Fine Arts Library: Charlene Zvolanek

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  Updated 13 March 2006
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