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Music to Her Ears

BU People: Holly Mockovak sets the tone as head of BU’s music library

“Transition [is] a key word around here,” says Holly Mockovak, head of BU’s music library.

Holly Mockovak, head of Boston University’s music library, runs her hand across the spines of several purple hardcover volumes. “To have the complete works of Richard Wagner is still important to some people,” she says, motioning to the books, “but I’m also buying the complete repertoire of Johnny Cash.” Then she pauses, before summing up her situation. “Transition,” says Mockovak (CFA’87), who has been at the music library since 1988, “that’s a key word around here.”

It’s not just the collection that’s in transition. The means of making, storing, listening to, and teaching music are also in flux. The library, located at Mugar Memorial Library, is expanding both in the stacks and well beyond — pointing students to online music collections and answering reference questions from distance-learning students around the world, while trying to build on its strengths in classical music and hard-to-find vinyl LPs.

The signs of change are everywhere. The dials and headphone jacks at the tabletop listening stations where students once listened to music from open-reel machines lie dormant. Instead, the library is WiFi-enabled and subscribes to Naxos, the online music archive. According to Mockovak, students often sample streaming or downloaded performances before listening to alternate versions on one of approximately 30,000 LPs and 10,000 CDs held on reserve.

The library also has a vast collection of music books, scores, and journals, although between 1995 and 2005 the number of books and periodicals checked out dropped from about 20,000 to 16,000. Meanwhile, Mockovak and her staff digitize music for courses and listening exams and assist students in BU’s online music master’s and doctoral degree programs, which began in the fall of 2005 with a combined 67 students and currently enroll more than 400.

Keeping up with it all requires a love of music, which runs deep in Mockovak, a classically trained pianist who earned a doctorate in music from the College of Fine Arts in 1987. “I can’t walk by the piano in my house without touching it,” she says, “even just for a few notes, if I don’t have time to sit down and play anything.”

She also scans the radio on her drive into work, always on the lookout for “a station that will really surprise me,” and she invites the library’s two dozen student assistants to seek out musical must haves for the library.

Acquiring new collections is one of Mockovak’s primary jobs. For instance, thanks to a 2002 grant from BU’s Humanities Foundation, the library purchased the audio catalogue of the Smithsonian Folkways label and the Rounder Collections sets from Rounder Records. At the same time, other libraries routinely request loans from BU’s vast collection of LPs — to the tune of about two a week, according to Mockovak.

“We’re strong in core classical,” she says of the current holdings. “And we have emerging strengths in popular American music and musical theater.” Mockovak would like to build up the library’s collection of jazz, and says she “would love to have a vintage collection of rock, in mint condition, in the original album covers.”

In addition to expanding the library, Mockovak focuses on maintaining what’s already there. Some of the most valuable items are stored at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, but for most things, it’s up to her. That’s one reason she has a fondness for vinyl. “Its shelf life is very, very good,” she says. “Walking through the stacks, you see they can get pretty beaten up, but it’s like looking at a sink full of dirty dishes after a dinner party. They’re good for another time, and you have the satisfaction of knowing that the collection has been well used.”

Indeed, Mockovak prizes the utility of what the music library offers over the prestige attached to any given collection. Nevertheless, she hopes visitors will experience the same surprise and delight she does when discovering new music. “I want people,” she says, “to discover excellence on every shelf.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.