The lending library is a cultural institution first established in the United States by Benjamin Franklin, who founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. It was only fairly recently, however, that libraries branched out from their usual circulation fare of books, tapes, DVDs and other media to include, of all things, the ukulele. The small instrument, with roots in 19th-century Hawaii, has been varyingly popular in different places and times, but has lately been undergoing a revival as a number of libraries across the country have begun circulating the instruments to the public.
Eve Parker, a storyteller at (and strong advocate for) the Avondale Library, has established such a program at her library, lending the instruments out to patrons for three weeks at a time. She plays the guitar, banjo and ukulele, but, she said with a laugh, “everything just a little bit — just enough that I can impress my young patrons, up to about fourth grade. Some of the fourth graders are a little jaded; I don’t play that well.”
Parker said she got interested in starting the ukulele lending program when she got a spark of inspiration while reading library articles one day.
“I came across an article about a library in Portland, Maine, that was lending ukuleles, and it was like a light bulb went off and I said, ‘Oh my god, that’s such a fabulous idea,’” Parker said. “So I started Googling, and I found Athens, Georgia, has 20 ukuleles than they lend. Omaha, Nebraska, has five ukuleles they lend. Highland Park in Chicago has some ukuleles they lend. So, there were a handful of libraries that were lending ukuleles, and so there was a precedent.
“I talked to my boss, who said, ‘Oh, that sounds so exciting; write something up,’ and so I wrote up a proposal about it, and then everybody got all excited. And then I went to Herb [Trotman, the proprietor of Fretted Instruments, a musical instrument store in Homewood] to price ukuleles,” and from there, she said, the program was off to the races. (Herb Trotman ended up donating the five ukuleles that the library currently has in circulation.)
The ukulele is, in many ways, an ideal choice for teaching students music, especially for school systems or libraries that cannot afford to purchase more expensive instruments like guitars or violins. This is important for a lending library, which requires that patrons who lose or destroy an item pay to replace it. “It’s affordable and gives the kids a chance to try an instrument, see if they like it, and then maybe for a Christmas present, a birthday present, etc.,” said Parker.
Furthermore, it is an easy instrument to learn to play, relative to many others; chords don’t require complicated fingerings, and strumming patterns are simple and often catchy. The library has a book by Jenny Peters and Rebecca Bogart called 21 Songs in 6 Days, which, according to Parker, really does live up to its title, even for someone who is a complete beginner.
“One of the first children to check one out came in after six days — she’s six years old — after six days she came in and played ‘Frère Jacques,’” Parker said. “And then, we have a mom from Germany who checked it out for her boys who are a little older, and she ended up getting really interested in it, and she played all the way through the book and ended up with the last song in the book, which is ‘This Land is Your Land.’ It was a new song for her, being from Germany, and she came in to return the ukulele, and she was so excited because she’d never played an instrument, and so I asked if I could video her playing it. [. . .] She was still struggling with the words, but the ukulele she had down pat.”
Also importantly, the ukulele is a very small instrument — it looks something like a very small guitar — making it easily portable. Again, this makes the ukulele a better choice for a library program than, say, the cello.
Asked about the interest level in the program so far, Parker said enthusiastically, “The five ukuleles, within the first week all were checked out. They’ve all been out once now, and they’re either on their second or third time out. This one is checked out to me. And we have 13 holds on first returned, and that was as of yesterday [Sept. 11].”
Furthermore, Parker said, “There are 13 people waiting for the ukuleles to come back in, and then go out for three weeks at a time. So, we’re looking at a couple months [that the ukuleles will be continuously checked out]. So it would be nice to have more ukuleles, because they are circulating. And who knows, it may be that if interest continues in this, and if the ukuleles hold up and come in without much damage, then other libraries might pick it up. I think we’re the first library in Alabama, to the best of my knowledge, to do this.”
“It seems to be a movement because when I started looking into it I think I could only find like five or six libraries that were doing this, and then when I presented the proposal and the library gave me funding to go forth and purchase, I started looking into it again, and a couple more libraries had jumped on the bandwagon this year,” Parker said. “And so, Tarpon Spring, Florida, outside of Tampa, was one and so there might be a dozen libraries now across the country.”
The Avondale Library currently has ukuleles available for checkout to anyone with a Jefferson County library card — though, for time being, patrons will have to wait a little while; these instruments are in very high demand.