26 May 2015

... Librarians are a lot like DJs...


I don't tune in to night time radio very often but the other  night I caught a listen of Dave Couse on Today FM He is a a DJ I like listening to and I rebuke myself for not listening to him more often. I like his show because his set list is completely eclectic and random. I can never be sure what is coming up next. But invariably it is a track I like. He plays much that I am delighted to hear: current tracks I'm hearing for the first time and classic tracks that I love and enjoy listening to again. And some are classic golden oldies I have never heard before.

That night he played one of the best tracks I have heard in a very long time.  It was a track I don't remember having heard before - The Unguarded Moment by 1980s Australian rock band The Church

And I don't think I'm being facetious, (though I may be thinking it too much,) but as the song faded out I lighbulbed thought - DJs are actually like librarians. Or to be more precise - night time DJs are a lot like librarians.

  • We both of us curate material.
  • We introduce people to the 'best' of what's out there in a particular field.
  • We try to make that field comprehensible and manageable to our listener / user.
  • We do the work of sorting through the noise so that our listeners / users don't have to.
  • DJs  help people discover music. Librarians help people locate information.
  • We try to educate people - our goal ought to be  "we provide the music or information and people learn," We provide the building blocks and they start from there.
  • We both help people navigate our particular sea - whether that be music or information.

I think back to the DJs I listened to as part of my teenage music education. DJs such as  John Peel, and Dave Fanning,  I think back to how they sorted through all the dross - and it being the 80s there was a lot of it. And they pointed us towards the gems. I remember how they would advocate for particular artists and genres and say you really need to listen to these guys. They actually had access to all this music that they would listen to, make decisions on, and then serve up to us. We as fans would never have been able to do that. We could read our chosen fave of the music mag triad Melody Maker, N.M.E or Sounds. But we didn't have a place to listen to the music the journalists wrote about. This is where Dave and John came into it. They had access to the goods and they opened that access to us. On their advice I would spend my hard earned money and buy the record. They made me the music fan I am today.

I think back to when I used my local library as a child and how the librarians would guide me towards particular books, genres and authors. And how this early grounding has guided my reading habits ever since. I think back to when I was an undergrad and postgrad and how college librarians would guide me through the info sphere. All helped make me the info literate / digitally literate person I am today.

And in todays streamed world of Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, Google Play Music and numerous other legal streaming options we are literally drowning in music and in choice of music. We really need curated content. We need curators. And this is where DJs like our John Peels' Dave Fannings' and Dave Couses' come into play, They listen to the music. They decide what they like. They play it. We listen. And hopefully learn and branch out and educate ourselves from there.

And in todays hyper informational and multiplatformed world of Subscription databases, catalogues, Google, Repositories, Social Media sites et al we are literally drowning in information. We really need curated content. We need Librarians. We sort the information. We decide what are good sources. The best places to find information for particular needs. And we teach our users. And hopefully they learn, branch out and educate themselves from there.

So, yes, librarians and DJs are a lot alike...


  1. Hi Martin,

    As mentioned on the Twitter...

    Great post. I was a long time ago a fiend for the radio and have fond memories of - yes - late night DJs especially John Peel and the duo responsible for Late Junction on BBC Radio 3. He's not a late night DJ, but I enjoy the JK Ensemble on Lyric FM (apart from the bloody jazz) in the afternoons. I'm currently reading Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen, and though he hasn't mentioned DJs yet, his enthusiasm for the music he listened to as a youth is similar to yours Martin.
    And I would agree that some DJs have some similarities with librarians, but I've two objections:
    1) I think these folk are the exceptions. The majority of DJs, in my somewhat pompous and po-faced opinion, have more in common with self-issues stations that with librarians. They don't do what the best ones do; they're there to fill any gaps between the songs on the playlist and the commercials, and aren't really essential. In fact, aren't many radio stations, especially in the US, now automated? I suppose that is a similarity with librarians; it's thought they can be replaced by machines.
    2) I don't think the best DJs necessarily play the “best” music. What is quality when it comes to music? Something I liked about John Peel was the number of demo tapes he played. Some of them were crap. Some of them were great. Did he play the best demos? I doubt it. He's more likely to have picked the ones he liked or found interesting. I think DJs play the music they find interesting or that they like. I don't think the "best" comes into it. We're not going to recommend the informational equivalent of demo tapes or necessarily the information sources that we like or find interesting. We’re going to recommend the source that we best think fits the user’s need. If someone asked me what album they should listen to next, I could give a thousand different answers*, but if they asked me about databases, I'm not going to say “try the eclectic variety of JSTOR, maaaan”. JSTOR to me is a far more interesting resource, than say GMID, but I can’t recommend it to someone looking for company information. I listened to Kid Jensen, John Peel and latterly the Late Junction duo for interesting music: my musical needs are less urgent and less objective than my information needs

    I like music. I like reading too, but I don’t think I’d compare the best book reviewers to librarians. Or film critics for that matter, even though they perform similar roles to DJs. I know what you’re saying Martin, but I think the comparison is a little spurious, sorry.

    * The first Velvet Underground album is where I normally start.

  2. hi David. Thanks for the (long, interesting, coherent) comment. Enjoyed reading it and enjoyed composing my reply.
    And I will start my riposte by saying yes I would agree with you on most of your points - maybe not one hundred per cent agree but to a large extent.
    For me, there are DJs who are more like librarians than others and these are the nighttime DJs - your John Peels, Dave Fannings, Paul McLoones, Dave Couses et al (and shout to a genre I don't know so well and a DJ I do know well - RED FMs Stevie Grainger - what he does with his shows, introducing black music in all its wide ranging forms on a mainstream Irish station is no mean feat.)
    1) These folks are the exception - but they are an important exception and for me they do a lot of the same things that librarians do - as I pointed out in the post. They provide building blocks upon which we can build and educate ourselves. They point us in a particular direction. These DJs - point us in the direction away from the mainstream music - and us librarians ought to be pointing users away from the 'mainstream' search engines. But of course the majority of day time DJs are what you point out so elequently in point 1. But a lot of that is due to playlist and commercial pressures - hopefully something that doesn't seep into libraries. It would be against all we stand for if pressure were to come to recommend certain information sources.
    2) Of course the 'best' is subject and personal. BUT there are 'best' for certain people and certain circumstances. And for me personally John Peel Dave Fanning et al are the best. They 'know' my musical needs which is why I trust their judgement. As I'm sure certain DJs tastes and knowledge you trust.
    And no we are not always going to recommend the informational equivalent of demos but there is an instance when it will be the best source for a user, And our knowledge of the wider information source landscape permits us to know this and to recommend it. We know when a JSTOR will suit a user and when a GMID will suit a user. Many users will not even know of the existence of these and will go instead to the mainstream daytime pop of Google. Our role is to say, hey there is more, check these out... you might find it useful...

    and of course our music needs are less urgent and less objective than our information needs - but we can still use guidance in both.

    I'm not sure that the comparison is spurious - but there is a comparison there that I believe can be teased out - if we apply a rigorous critique to it there can be holes in it obviously but at basis there is enough in it, I believe to make the claim..

    * And yes, good good album to start with. I have this in my list of 'where do I start' my rock music education albums...

  3. Thank you for clarifying. I can’t disagree with much of what you've written.
    However :)
    I just don’t think we have enough similarities with DJs to say that. I guess I’d be uncomfortable comparing myself to any other occupation, particularly where the best known examples include certain ex-BBC Radio 1 DJs. You mention John Peel, Dave Fanning and some other folk I’m unfortunately unaware of. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I wouldn’t say these folk are the best known examples of DJs extant. I listened to Late Junction on BBC Radio 3 for a long time, and I struggle to remember the presenters’ names (Fiona Tarkington and Verity Sharp IIRC). There was another one, on less frequently, whose name totally eludes me).

    Yeah, late-night DJs bear some similarities to librarians. So do the best book reviewers, film critics, wine journalists, food writers… See where I’m going with this: where do you draw the line? Who can’t you say librarians are like? I don’t know how useful it is to compare us to others; I think it might be a little confusing at times.

    It’s a pity you weren’t at Library Camp 2015. You would have enjoyed @jenbeardublin‘s pitch on the librarian’s elevator pitch.

    “What do you librarians do?”
    “I’m like a late-night DJ…”
    We could have had some fun there :)

    I’ll admit to being a grumpy middle-aged man, if other librarians want to compare themselves to DJs it’s up to them. I however am incomparable 

    Now, what about a post on the use of the term “rockstar librarian”?

  4. Thank you for clarifying. I can’t disagree with much of what you've written.
    However :)
    I can see where we are going here - it's a question of extent, how alike are we and where do we draw the line. That for me allows one to make the comparison and to be able to stand over it.
    And I wouldn't that the DJs i mentioned are the best at what they - though if you were asked for an exemplar of a certain more left field DJ many people would say John Peel - so to take the next step many could call him the best. To a lesser extent in an Irish context many might mention Dave Fanning.
    And the title of the piece probably covers me as well - librarians are a LOT like DJs - haven't said we completely alike, just alike. (when writing the piece I had some RTE sketch show in my head where a priest would talk about how like 'x' was to 'God' or religion)
    alas, I couldn't make Library Camp this year. and that would be a fun pitch...
    And I will give the last word to @jimxcomet (DJ and Cork legend) who posted a comment on Facebook on the post

    Great article. Completely agree. Without good djs to guide people through the maze that is music so much will be forgotten or lost. Spotify or iTunes can never take the place of something like that.
    Btw haven't heard that Church track in about 30 years :)

  5. All I'm going to add here is I think the *third* Velvet Underground record is a better album ;)

  6. Enjoyed your post - music to my ears (pun possibly intended).

    Here's my take from 2008, making a similar comparison with the role of the DJ in dance music culture:


    It was pre-Spotify, but downloading (legal and otherwise) had been around for a few years and was challenging the idea of DJs managing to hold onto any exclusives; while the Open Access movement was having a similar effect in making the 'gatekeeper'/collector role increasingly irrelevant in the academic sector where I worked.

    I should probably write an update sometime, things have moved on a lot since then!