Gear for All

The AADL’s “Tools” collection provides local musicians with gear, training, and inspiration.

by author

From the June, 2019 issue

“It’s like having our own store, but we don’t have to pay anything,” says Charlie Reischl, music programs coordinator at the Neutral Zone teen center. “I can’t tell you how amazing it is that we can just walk down there and check out anything we want from this huge collection of professional-quality instruments and gear.”

Reischl says around 150 teens are involved in the Neutral Zone’s music programs, and around one-third of them have checked out tools from the Ann Arbor District Library. “Most of them don’t have a library card to start out with, because this generation usually just downloads books,” he says. “So I take them down there, and they are blown away by the fact that they can pick out and try anything they want.”

“What’s now called the Tools Collection started in 2011 with science tools, expanded to include telescopes in 2012 (courtesy of the University Lowbrow Astronomers), and welcomed the first musical instruments–tiny synthesizers–in 2012,” emails AADL director Josie Parker. Now a search for “tools” on the library’s online catalog brings up a total of 885 items, of which 153 are musical instruments and gear. Some of them are quite expensive–this winter a note on the library catalog announced that a new portable amp worth about $1,300 was available for check out, and the library had bought three.

According to Reischl, the tools are crucial to young people who might not otherwise have a chance to become musicians. “Some of them come from families that don’t have a lot of money, so their parents tell them they can’t afford to buy their kid an instrument,” he says. “In a lot of cases, those young people get inspired to work on becoming good musicians here, and then they’ll take a guitar home and play it for their parents, and then their parents realize how important it is to buy their kid a guitar or whatever. The library is really changing these kids’ lives by being so inclusive and making it more possible for young people to enter the local music community, get gigs, and build a fan base.”

The library has invited electronic musicians like Alex Taam (aka Mogi Grumbles) to bring synthesizer equipment to the library so the public could explore making music with them, with Taam on hand to answer questions. Last fall, the collection even enriched a Chicago multidisciplinary, multimedia performance by the Asian American performing arts collective IS/LAND. Ann Arborites J. Amber Kao and Chien-An Yuan contributed dance and music/visuals/lighting respectively. According to IS/LAND member Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Yuan checked out equipment from the library, drove it to Chicago, and returned it after the show. (The performance was reprised, with a reading by Wang, at the downtown library in February.)

“The library makes it possible for professional musicians like me to explore new equipment without having to buy it first,” says Dave Menzo. “I use their equipment in almost all of my concerts, and I made a whole CD using just things I checked out from the library.” Entitled Shhh …–an ironic allusion to the fact that people are not supposed to make noise in the library–Menzo’s CD was featured in a 2015 New York Times article about the “the library of things.”

“Their equipment provides a huge resource for any musician to take their career to the next level,” Menzo says. “It’s bound to inspire anyone from beginner to expert–I love checking out new things and exploring them.”

Parker emails that “tools purchases account for just seven percent of our total materials budget.” As they do with books, music, and movies, library staff decides what to buy based on input from patrons.

The library holds regular workshops to teach people from grade six to adult how to play synthesizers and other tools, build their own instruments using computer chips, and record their compositions.

Menzo says the library is also helping “second-chance musicians” get their inspiration and motivation back. “I can’t tell you how many gigs I’ve done where a guy comes up to me and tells me he sold his instrument for money and wishes he had kept playing. And now I can just send these guys to the library.”