Tiny Ref Desk Concerts bring good vibes to Conservatory Library

By Megan McLaughlin

Name a venue that regularly presents performances by jazz trios, early music choirs, flute ensembles, acapella groups, and other seemingly random and disparate musical acts. An unexpected venue that might not have made your list for such an assortment of offerings is the Oberlin Conservatory Library. “The more outside of the box, the more fun it becomes,” Reference Librarian Kathy Abromeit said during a Zoom interview about the monthly Tiny Ref Desk concert series.

Inspired by National Public Radio’s popular Tiny Desk Concerts, the Conservatory Library series is outside the norm of what one typically might expect from their everyday library experience. In October of 2018, the Library began hosting twenty-minute noontime concerts performed by a variety of groups — the first was a jazz ensemble — as a way to promote student library workers, give instrumental studios a new venue at which to perform, and change the relationship patrons feel toward the space.

An early installment was “Swoon Over the Bassoon,” a collaboration between Student Reference Assistant Philip Swigon and former Student Reference Assistant, now Professor of Bassoon, Drew Pattison — a fun way to include new and old student workers and give them a creative outlet in what is traditionally a somber atmosphere. “It’s about saying ‘this is my library, this is my space. I get to perform right over there.’ It’s their library. It’s your library,” Abromeit said. The Tiny Ref Desk concerts give students the unique opportunity to perform in the same place where they work and study. In fact, it is not uncommon for audience members to move furniture around, sit on the floor, and come and go as they please.

Performances have included “Hear my Prayer” with the Oberlin College Black Musicians Guild, “Horn Hanukkah” with the Oberlin Horn Studio, “Suffrage Through Song” to celebrate Women’s History Month, and the “Hispanic Heritage Month Concert” with the Latinx Music Union. Abromeit said that the range in instrumentation and mission of the groups encourages a diverse audience, and “if we can keep diversifying the audience, I think we’ll keep getting people to come in for the concerts.” 

When asked about the future, Abromeit said she wanted to integrate more college musicians into the conservatory setting. After the successful performance from the college acapella group The Obertones during Parents’ Weekend in October of 2019, Abromeit looked into bringing more college musicians and community members into the library to perform a Tiny Ref Desk concert. Although canceled due to the pandemic, the May performance was supposed to be “Tiny Instruments,” followed in September by a “Tiny People” concert with elementary-school aged guests from the Oberlin Community Music School. Hopefully it will still take place in the Fall — as long as it can be scheduled around nap time.

Abromeit said that she is also hoping to bring in college faculty members to participate, including a fiddle and guitar duo from Oberlin’s biology department. Regarding non-conservatory musicians in general, the librarian said “I can totally appreciate how intimidating it would be to come into the Conservatory, and I want to make sure it feels safe and fun. I can most certainly work on that more.”

Winding down our conversation, Abromeit thanked her supervisor, Deborah Campana, for her enthusiasm toward the idea of bringing live music into the music library. She also thanked everyone who has participated in the Tiny Ref Desk concerts, either as an audience member or performer. “This can only be as successful as the people who agree to perform — it couldn’t succeed if they weren’t willing to share their talents and participate in this series.” She let me know that every month she Tweets a clip from the concert to NPR. Although they have never replied, she vows to keep trying in the hopes that someday, they will.

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