Guest Blogger

Music and Libraries: A Natural Combination

While attending my state library association’s annual conference this past year, I met a fascinating children’s librarian who spoke very passionately… about her ukulele. She told me I could pick one up and immediately make music. I was skeptical. I’ve always wanted to be musical, but have always sort of failed. I do not have a lovely singing voice (despite many dramatic years in high school show choir). I’ve dabbled in playing instruments —cello, guitar, clarinet, accordion — without mastering a single one. But this lady was convinced, and almost had me convinced, that I could be a ukulele superstar.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I went home, bought myself a ukulele, and haven’t put it down since! I believe that making music can be one of the most empowering of all human experiences. If you can learn even 2 or 3 chords on a ukulele, you can play a literal multitude of recognizable tunes. And if you’ve spent a lifetime telling yourself you’re not musical, only to be easily proven wrong by a little piece of wood with strings? Well, what else have you been wrong about? What else can you do or be, that you’ve been telling yourself you just “can’t” or “aren’t?” You could fly a plane! Or get a black belt in Tae Kwon Do! You could do anything! Or you could at least try. That is the lesson the little ukulele taught me.

I began quietly proselytizing to my friends about the power of the ukulele, and soon I’d converted 2 more librarians to playing the uke. We recently started meeting regularly to play music, drink tea, and talk shop, which has got me thinking a lot about libraries and music, and why they make sense together. I’m not a scientist, but I have read extensively about music and its effect on the brain. I’d like to speak now, in general terms, about how (and why) I think we can (and should) be using music in our libraries today:

1. To teach

Most of us probably do this already. We use songs in story times and programs. Music has been proven to boost cognitive behavior. It can help us learn. This is why there are songs to teach children the names of the 50 states, the days of the week, and, most famously, the alphabet. Concepts are often easier to remember when set to a rhythm or melody. Some scientists speculate humans evolved the ability to sing, and the neural capacity to recognize beats, for this reason! We librarians have known for years that singing is a key component of early literacy, so sing proudly at your library, and offer a healthy collection of recordings for your customers to check out. Some of my favorite artists making high quality music for children are Laurie Berkner, Jim Gill, and Dan Zanes. What are some of yours?

2. Setting the mood

Music is emotional. It can bring us pleasure. It can make us remember specific times in our lives. Companies use music in their advertisements to try to excite us about whatever product they’re selling. Why couldn’t a library use music to try to “set the mood” for our customers? The branch I work at uses ambient music in our children’s room for this purpose. If we’re having a craft program, we might play some energetic music to get the creative juices flowing. If things are getting rowdy, we’ll play some mellow music, to try to soothe youngsters’ souls. Is your library utilizing music to help inspire or relax your library customers?

3. Build community

Music can play an important role in social bonding. Why do soldiers march in time? Why do we dance at significant occasions, like weddings? Music can get us moving together, fostering an environment of cooperation. Studies have shown that people can have universal reactions to music, and thus music becomes a shared experience that brings people together. What opportunities can the library create to build community through music? We can host musical programs. Or offer a place for musical groups to practice together. Does your library engage in any fruitful musical partnerships?

4. Hand people instruments

Let’s set aside the idea that learning music is too difficult. I’ve personally disproven it. Learning to play music is just like learning a language. You need to practice. To properly appreciate music, you should immerse yourself in it. What if we could offer our customers a chance to handle an instrument, to physically make music? This idea is a lot of things: It’s expensive. It’s noisy. It’s not “industry standard” library procedure (although there are libraries that have instruments available to use or check out). But it’s also empowering. It’s inspiring. It’s happy! I challenge you to tell your customers “Yes, you can check out a ukulele with your library card” and not see them smile!

Hopefully this blog has made you think about how you incorporate music in your library, or how you can, if you don’t already. Please sound off in the comments section with anything you have to add to this important discussion! (And feel free to contact me directly to talk about ukuleles!)


Our guest blogger today is Tess Goldwasser. Tess is a Library Associate at St. Mary’s County Library in Lexington Park, Maryland. You can reach her at

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at


  1. Rick

    I tried playing guitar in storytime many years ago… and failed horribly. I went out and purchased an autoharp, instead. It has been the most wonderful addition to my storytime bag-of-tricks.

    The More We Get Together is super-easy to play and makes a perfect beginning storytime song. I sit down, strum a few chords (which draws in all eyes and ears) and slowly move into the song. The transition from pre-storytime fidgetiness to focuesed attention is perfectly simple.

    I’m no Maybelle Carter… and I can’t sing worth a hoot… still, I love the act of playing music with the kids. They seem to like it, too!

    1. Tess

      Thanks for sharing about your autoharp Rick! It’s especially rewarding to play music for young children when you realize this may be the first time they are hearing/seeing music played live. They have heard music on a recording before, but you’re giving them that crucial learning experience of where music actually comes from. It can be very energizing, for the children and you!

  2. Sharon McClintock

    Tess, thanks for sharing your experience and enthusiasm for music. I love the idea of playing the ukulele in storytime — I just may try it!

    You asked for favorite recording artists: I also love Jim Gill, and use his music a lot in storytimes (more than anyone else for preschoolers) and Dan Zanes, too. I’m also crazy about Elizabeth Mitchell, Kathy Reid-Naiman and MaryLee Sunseri.

    Keep up the playing and thanks again for the inspiration!

    1. Tess

      Thank you! I hope you do give the uke a try! And thanks for the children’s music recommendations 🙂

  3. Jan Jensen

    I’ve started a monthly music program at the Hartland Public Library (WI).
    “Acoustic Strings Jam” is for anyone with a stringed instrument. So far we’ve only had guitars, but ukes, banjos, violins, etc. are also encouraged.

    We play mostly oldies – James Taylor, Beatles, etc.
    I also wrote a song about libraries and posted it on YouTube. Search for “Hartland Library, Your Library”. I’ll gladly share the lyrics and chords if you leave a comment.

    1. Tess

      An “acoustic jam” sounds like an awesome idea for a program! Thanks for sharing the idea!

  4. Lisa

    I’ve had the idea to purchase a ukulele in the back of my mind for the last year or two, but kept telling myself that it’s a crazy idea. I’ve tried playing piano at storytime, but don’t play well enough to focus on the music and keep the children engaged. I play the tinwhistle, but that doesn’t allow me to sing with the children. I think you’ve convinced me that a ukulele is the way to go. I’ll email you. Thanks for the nudge.

    1. Tess

      Got your email, and sent you one back! Always happy to nudge 🙂

  5. Vicki


    I had been wanting to play an instrument in storytime for years, but which one? Last November, someone told me about a uke playing librarian, and a lightbulb went on in my head! I got a ukulele and started learning to play. It is a relatively easy instrument, but I was very nervous about playing in public, so it was a long time before I felt confident enough to play in storytime. After practicing each song daily for months so I was sure I knew them by heart (and that my fingers had sufficient muscle memory to play even if my mind went blank) –the “ABC Song,” “The More We Get Together,” and “I’m in the Mood for Singing” were my first public performances. Even though I did fine, I was a nervous wreck the first few times, but now I really enjoy it. (And I’ve become a bit obsessed with the uke — I am practicing every day at home and trying to get actually good on it — going to a local ukulele group, trying to convince everybody I know to play, etc.) I can’t say enough about what an enjoyable and enriching experience playing the ukulele is! As uke virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro says, “if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.”

    1. Tess

      Vicki thanks so much for sharing your story! This is exactly what I like to hear! I brought my ukulele to story time within the first month of picking it up. My first story time performance was “Wheels on the Bus.” After we sang about all the traditional things on the bus (wipers, horn, etc.), I asked the kids, “What else can be on the bus?” and we made up verses for whatever they could come up with (mostly farm animals!)
      But hey, if Vicki and I can’t convince you to pick up the ukulele, maybe Amanda Palmer can –

  6. former children's librarian

    When I was a children’s librarian, my uke playing was a hit! What are some of your favorite songs to play?

    1. Tess

      For story time: “Wheels on the Bus,” “The More We Get Together,” “How Much is That Doggy in the Window,” “Old MacDonald,” “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “Hokey Pokey,” and a medley of “Twinkle Twinkle,” “The ABC Song,” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (same tune, different lyrics!)
      For fun: “Wish You Were Here,” “Valerie,” “Tonight You Belong to Me,” “Hanalei Moon,” and “With a Little Help from My Friends”

  7. Kendra

    This is an awesome post!
    Last week I was in a library where they were playing music. The music energized me while searching for CD’s for my grandmother and I didn’t want to leave until the song they were playing ended! Of course, I could also see how music could be annoying to some patrons, but they do it in bookstores, why not libraries?
    Guess I need to dust off the uke and give it another shot! Thanks!

    1. Tess

      Hi Kendra! We mostly play instrumental music at our library. We find the majority of our customers are neutral to it. Some times people ask what we’re playing, and whether they can check it out! We’ve never gotten a complaint, but once someone asked us to turn it off, because they were editing their own music on a computer, and it was distracting them!
      I certainly hope you give your uke another try! Cheers!

  8. sarahrice

    I’m late to the party, but I wanted to ask if you (or anyone else) knew of any examples of using the uke in adult programming.

    1. Tess

      Hi there. We recently did a “Make Music” program at our library for the Mayker Mondays movement. We had a ukulele that people could test drive. I’ve also heard of libraries lending ukuleles, like this – – which I think is really, REALLY awesome.
      I think it would be great to host ukulele clubs or workshops in library meeting space as well. A great way to connect with your community!

    2. Elizabeth LaShomb

      For Adults…

      We did Build-a-Uke project. For just over $100, people got a kit to build a soprano or a concert ukulele and I guided them thru the project over 3 nights. Super fun! Dad’s built them to sing to their babies, it was great!

      We have a stum along club for beginners that meets once a month. And a performance group (for those who have more time to commit) that meets weekly, sometime bi-weekly if we have a big gig coming up.

  9. Elizabeth LaShomb

    I use the uke in my storytime, the kids play rhythm instruments and sing along, it’s great fun.

    I also use it for my older kids in Summer Reading Program. I’ll work up a couple of songs that go with the Summer Reading Program theme and we sing them all summer and on a float in our local fair parade. (Last year we won the grand sweepstakes prize in the parade and the judges said it was because of our music!)

    My teens LOVE it when I pull out the uke and do punk or rap song. We bond.

    For adults, I started off by working up a Build-a-Uke workshop. For just over $100, patrons could participate in a 3 evening workshop and build their own ukes from kits we purchased. It was AWESOME fun! We are making it a regular event

    And now we have a strum-along club for beginners and a performance group for those who have committed more time to the project. Our performance group plays when Santa comes to town, for special occasions at the school, at long term care, our local Irish Days festival…pretty much everywhere. It’s awesome PR for our library!!!

    Not only is Ukulele fun in the library, it just might be the key to saving the entire universe. (really)

    1. Tess

      I totally agree with you 🙂

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