In 2015, Sheldon Kagan, a Montreal DJ and event planner decided to retire and sell his home. He wanted his music collection of over 10,000 Long-Play (LP) records 45-rpm singles, and CDs and other memorabilia to remain together. A friend suggested he contact Vanier College, a CEGEP with five programs in music, to see if they would be interested in acquiring his collection. Music professor Glen Ethier and Alena Perout, Dean of Arts, Business and Social Sciences accepted the donation. At the same time, plans to renovate the three-story former chapel that is now the library were underway.
Architects for the firm LeMay were asked to incorporate the music collection into the fifth floor plans, which was to become a group study area. The solution was to build stationary shelving for browsing, similar to those found in a traditional music store. Attached to every shelving unit is a table that holds six seats with a plug to connect a portable turntable or laptop.
The collection consists of music from the 1940s through the 1980s, and includes rock, soul, jazz and blues, disco, dance, film soundtracks and international music (for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations). Rare Quebec and Canadian records were also donated, along with a life-size soft sculpture of Woody Allen with a clarinet. In order to allow the students to play and listen to the music, two portable turntables with adapters and headphones were purchased and placed on a table near the collection. Students were interested, but they were not familiar with this type of technology and had no idea how to use the turntables, or how to place the records on the machines. The small plastic 45 adapters were stolen and the turntables were pushed aside to make room for students’ textbooks. After only one month, a group study room was turned into a music listening room. The equipment was moved and it is now popular with the college’s music students.
During the winter 2019 semester, two interns from the John Abbott library program and one Vanier library technician began to catalog the LPs. That summer, the less popular and unknown LPs were placed in storage, and the rare LPs were relocated to special collections. The remaining albums were divided by genre and alphabetized. LP frames were purchased from Ikea and a few covers were hung in the music listening room. Other covers are temporarily displayed near the music department and across from the library entrance to celebrate events such as Black History month or Women’s History week. Although the collection was recognized for its uniqueness and historical value, there were doubts that it would ever be used for pedagogical purposes.
In the fall semester of 2019, Colleen Ayoup, an educator in the Communications, Media and Studio Arts department requested a library session for her Mass Media: Mass Culture class. She decided to use the LP collection for a project, and wanted a tour as well as a presentation about music resources in the library. Susan Bissonnette, liaison librarian for the department, was available to do the session.
Ayoup’s assignment required the students to choose an LP from the Kagan collection and produce an eight-minute PowerPoint presentation. Students had to photograph the front and back of the LP, choose a song within it, and answer the following research questions:
- The cover art: what does it tell you about the period in which it was produced? What does the cover tell you about the artist? Why did you choose this album?
- What aspect of this album (cover art and music) makes it a clear product of the year in which it was created (historical events)?
- The genre of music: what is the history of this genre of music (its origins; its pioneers)?
- The band/musician – have they played in other bands? Did they move on to other genres of music? What else?
- The sample song you’ve selected from the album: What are the lyrics? Did the lyrics have something to do with the period in which the song was produced? How does this song contrast with the music of its era or is in keeping with the music of the era?
- The record company: What type of musicians did it typically sign?
- The album as a whole: Was it a success? If so, what made it a success/how did that come to be? How was it reviewed at the time of its release?
- Could this album have been made today?
In addition, because this was a mass media course, Ayoup’s students were asked to explore at least three different media formats, such as library books and databases, online videos, film documentaries, social media, blogs, and audio recordings, to support their responses. For their presentation, students were also required to include a subjective analysis of the contribution that the particular media formats made in helping them understand the work they chose. This was clearly a project that included visual, media and information literacy, as well as critical thinking.
For the presentation, Ayoup’s students met with the librarian amidst one of the busiest and noisiest times of the day for group study. They were introduced to the library catalogue and databases as well as the LP collection, the turntables, and how to handle and use the fragile items. The assignment was repeated and then students were free to browse the music albums. Although somewhat afraid to handle the physical albums they seemed to enjoy their searches. A few students asked if the Library had particular artists they already knew, but they couldn’t easily search the catalogue for obscure musicians or groups. Therefore, their decisions were based primarily on visual cues.
According to Ayoup, the outcome of the first-time assignment was positive, but could be improved if repeated in the future. The students enjoyed learning about music they would not normally find elsewhere, however, with only one short library session, most of the students turned to popular websites to find information instead of using the databases. They also could have focused more on the cultural and historical context of the musical works, and many of the students chose listening formats they were already familiar with—YouTube and Spotify—rather than opting to use the turntables. This first-time visual literacy course assignment was successful because it introduced students to a “very visible, but largely ignored” audio collection, as well as taught them how to conduct research using the library’s online resources.
When interviewed for this article, Ayoup wrote, “I would definitely do the project again, but next time, with more pointed directives that ask students to concentrate on an analysis of the record’s impact on the masses, who the intended audience was and the context in which the album was created.” If a library session is requested for this assignment in the future, a guide to help students navigate the collection and learn how to use the equipment would be useful. In conclusion, a class project to discover LP covers from the library’s unique music collection made it a perfect audio and visual encounter for our students. These interactions with the students will inform future activities that will expand the power of audio and visual encounters.
Educator / Vanier College
Colleen Ayoup is an educator in the Communications, Media and Studio Arts programme at Vanier College in Montreal, Quebec. She studied at the Dawson Institute of Photography (Montreal), received her BA in Psychology and BFA in Film Production from Concordia University (Montreal), and an MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University (Toronto).
Librarian / Vanier College
Susan Bissonnette is a librarian for Vanier College in Montreal, Quebec. She taught information literacy, humanities and art courses in colleges and universities and studied art history and photography.