10 Questions: Bob Kosovsky

Bob Kosovsky believes in sharing his knowledge of music, not just as a librarian but as a Wikipedia editor and teacher and through social media.

By Stuart Hales

Note: This article appears in the January-February 2015 issue of Information Outlook.


If you’re a fan of animated short films, you may have seen “Betty Boop for President,” a seven-minute parody of U.S. presidential elections released in 1932. Betty and her opponent, Mr. Nobody, sing and dance their way through their respective campaigns, each trying to outdo the other by making empty promises.

If you haven’t seen the film but want to know what it’s about, ask a librarian—specifically, ask Bob Kosovsky. Bob knows a thing or two about short films, having written plot summaries about several of them for IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, a subsidiary of Amazon.com. In fact, Bob has contributed a considerable amount of information to the realm of public knowledge, much of it in his role as a contributing editor of Wikipedia.

Information Outlook spoke to Bob in the hours before Winter Storm Juno was expected to dump 12 to 18 inches of snow on the New York metropolitan area (only about half that amount eventually fell). He shared his thoughts about Wikipedia, working in the world’s most famous public library, why he’s an SLA member, and how teaching music theory helps him in his work.

You have bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in music. When and how did you get interested in music?

It’s a childhood thing—the earliest photographs of me beyond infancy show me with recordings. There’s a photo of me at age 3 holding a 78-rpm recording, and I still know what that recording is. And there’s another photo of me at age 4, and I know I was holding the original cast recording of “My Fair Lady.”

I’ve been obsessed with music almost since I was born, which is unusual because no one else in my family really enjoys listening to music! But with me, it became an outlet—it sort of became my life. I started out playing the violin, but then switched to the piano at age 12 because I needed harmony. I still play the piano today—not professionally, but I practice and keep it up.

Between earning your master’s and doctoral degrees in music, you earned a library degree. What prompted you to get that degree?

I was working toward my master’s part-time and living in New York City, which is not cheap. I had gotten a job at the New York Public Library, where I work now—it was typical for the library to hire non-library people to do particular jobs. I was processing an archival collection, and while I was doing that, my father died. He had been supplying me with a steady source of income, and while I still had an income without him, I realized I needed to be on more stable financial footing.

In talking to people, it became very obvious to me that earning a library degree would be, compared to a PhD, a pretty simple thing to get. It would be over pretty quickly, in six semesters, and would form the basis of stable employment.

It goes without saying that I enjoyed working at the New York Public Library, even though at that time I only had a very specific task of processing that collection. So I selected the library degree in between the music degrees as a way of having a stable financial base. I knew I still wanted the PhD.

When and how did you hear about SLA?

Way after I had finished the library degree—I want to say it was around 2007—I saw an advertisement from the New York Chapter of SLA. Someone who was active in the chapter, maybe Roberta Piccoli, was giving a talk on branding. I went with a co-worker because we thought it would be interesting, and we were concerned about raising our profile.

So I went to that talk, and it was stupendous—absolutely stupendous! I was bowled over. Then I began going to the Website of SLA New York and the main SLA Website, and I thought, wow, this is what everybody else in the library world should be doing. Then, after going to a few more one-off talks and meeting people at receptions and networking events, I decided I wanted to be a part of it, so I joined.

There are other library associations out there, such as the Music Library Association, that seem more oriented toward your work and interests. Why do you stay with SLA, and what are the most important benefits you derive from membership?

I’m a member of the Music Library Association and some other library associations, but the music library organizations are much more geared to musicians than to librarians. I’d say many of the members of those associations are people who have been or are practicing musicians or have been involved in the music industry in a practical manner and have drifted toward the library profession as a way of harnessing their knowledge. You really have to know how music works, socially and technically, to be a music librarian.

As far as the American Library Association is concerned, it’s a very broad umbrella with many disparate interest groups—they don’t call them that—that specialize in various topics of librarianship. I’d say it’s mostly a combination of public librarians and academic librarians. That’s not what SLA is.

When I went to library school, I didn’t know anything about libraries except from my job. I remember being told there are three types of libraries: public, academic, and special. And as soon as they said “for profit,” I tuned them out—I didn’t want to work for a bank or a corporation or something like that. It’s not my thing. But after broaching it through that initial SLA New York session and then attending other sessions, I started thinking that SLA is doing things that other library associations don’t do—not with the same intensity and seriousness of purpose, anyway—to make sure that librarians are seen as integral parts of any kind of organizational structure.

One of the things I get continuously from SLA is that a librarian is in an equal partnership with the other people in the organization. I’ve actually had an opportunity—not through SLA, although it was one of our commonalities—to meet a couple of law librarians, and they’ve made it very clear that most lawyers would not be able to function if the library were not part of the law firm.

Even though it may be second nature to most people in SLA, it’s not the same kind of attitude you get in ALA or other library organizations. And SLA, of course, gives you very specific tools for the way you address yourself. I can’t remember which recent president said we’re performing services—we don’t have content. It seems like such a simple and obvious idea, but you don’t hear it in an organization as big as ALA.

You’re the curator of rare books and manuscripts for the Music Division of the New York Public Library, perhaps the most famous library in the world. After nearly 30 years there, is it just another place to work, or do you sometimes get goose bumps when you enter the building?

Bob_Kosovsky

There are days when I have to sit at my desk for a long time, and when I realize I’ve been doing that for more than four or five hours, I deliberately get up and walk into the stacks, and I say to myself, “I can’t believe I work here!”

The thrill never goes away. Sometimes when I’m talking to people about Mozart or Beethoven and I mention that we have their actual sketches or compositions in our hands, I’ll say it casually, but internally I’m always thrilled that I’m working in this incredible storehouse of knowledge. We have plenty of books and scores that other libraries have, but we also have plenty of materials that no one else in the entire world has. That never ceases to thrill me.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve ever worked on? What made it so interesting?

About 20 years ago, we physically moved due to renovations, and when we were moving back, we realized we didn’t have enough space for all of our books. So we had to barcode 67,000 books and musical scores in order to send them offsite.

I volunteered to lead the work flow. I came up with a bar coding procedure and macros and scripts for the computers to run, so that even if people were computer-shy, all they had to do was follow the sequence of buttons to push and they’d be able to barcode. It took us about two or three months, and it only involved about seven people—we didn’t have any volunteers, just staff—and we did it.

Basically, I managed that entire project. It didn’t require a lot of intellectual thought, but being able to see it through gave me a fabulous sense of confidence.

As far as more intellectual projects go, pretty much all the big archival collections I’ve processed were interesting. There were a couple of collections we archived that were so important that we processed them on the item level. Even though that may depart from what’s considered acceptable archival process, all of the researchers who use those collections are very, very thankful.

So I would say that a project that combines those facets, something that requires both coordination and intellectual ability, provides me with the most satisfaction.

In addition to your job at the New York Public Library, you teach music theory and analysis at the Mannes New School for Music. What do you learn from teaching that helps you in your work as a librarian?

Every person learns in a different way. When you’re teaching a class, you have to be able to address those differences—you have to be able to speak clearly, efficiently, and succinctly so that you make sense, but you aren’t as verbose as you would be in writing.

Teaching is an incredibly important tool, and I think librarians should consider it an obligation to put themselves into some kind of teaching situation at some point in their careers. It’s a skill—it’s not like knowledge, like two plus two equals four. Teaching is a skill, and you have to always work at it and practice it. You can’t ever coast and assume, “Oh, I’ve done this before.” It doesn’t work that way. You have to be able to see what kinds of students you have, assess them quickly, articulate ideas to them, and see if the ideas take. And if it doesn’t work, you have to rethink and rephrase your ideas and try to see things from the students’ eyes.

I’ve been teaching for so long, since 1982, that I’m really spoiled. It’s hard for me to go to a conference now and hear a speaker, because I’d say 95 percent of the people who speak at conferences don’t know how to speak at conferences. So I’m sitting in my chair, trying to hear what they’re saying, and I can’t hear them or they’re speaking in a way that’s frustrating.

You’re a Wikipedia editor and have contributed some content about music to the site. How do you think the library community feels about Wikipedia, and do you encourage other librarians to become Wikipedia editors as well?

My mission with Wikipedia is essentially to share knowledge. I sort of wear two Wikipedia hats: I think of Wikipedia as part of my job—although I don’t edit Wikipedia content on my job—and I think of Wikipedia as a hobby I do at home.

When I hear someone today say, “Oh, Wikipedia, you can’t trust their information,” it tells me that this person is not entirely versed in what’s going on in the contemporary world. I admit I’m biased—I’ve been a Wikipedia editor for over eight years. I’ve worked through it, and I’ve learned a lot. I don’t wish to go up to an administrative level; I’m happy just being an editor.

A couple of years ago, you would often hear academics or newspaper reporters say you can’t trust Wikipedia. But at the beginning of the year, the American Historical Association, which I think has about 5,000 academics, met here in New York. I attended their meeting, and in four or five of the sessions, I heard Wikipedia mentioned—and in every single one of those sessions, it was mentioned in a positive light. No one was disparaging. Many people were saying, yes, use Wikipedia, it’s a tool we can use to help our students learn. It may not be the be-all or end-all, but it’s a great way to get started.

For librarians, I think it’s different. I’d say librarians really should be involved in Wikipedia. It has evolved—it has fewer editors today than it did in its heyday around 2007 or 2008. I think the big economic collapse affected Wikipedia. People have dropped off.

There’s a great opportunity now in that a lot of the basic material has been written, so more specialized information needs to be entered. The stuff I do to help my job is to enter information about our rare materials. For example, I’ve been steadily entering information on our most important music manuscripts. They’re so valuable that we rarely let them out unless we have a professional scholar looking at them, but we have microfilm of them, and there are facsimiles of them published in various places. I definitely have noticed an increase in the amount of interest in them because of these Wikipedia entries.

And it’s not just about having this information and putting it on Wikipedia for the entire world to see. For it to really be understood, you have to understand not just the subject but how it’s networked, how it’s connected to every other piece of knowledge. That’s the whole thing with hyperlinks—for a topic to really be valuable, it’s not just based on the topic itself, but how that topic is integrated into human knowledge, into Wikipedia itself.

For example, I know that one of the areas in which Wikipedia is lacking information is corporations. That’s an excellent opportunity for members of SLA who work in corporations, either for-profit or nonprofit, to enter their corporations in Wikipedia in such a way as to make the world realize that everyone and everything are dependent on one another.

So, yes, I think every librarian should consider it their obligation to contribute to Wikipedia. And you don’t have to do it by writing articles—you can do it by amplifying bibliographies. Just finding sources and putting them in the proper articles is incredibly helpful.

I could go on and on about Wikipedia. Someday, if SLA wants to host a special session on Wikipedia, I’d be more than happy to talk about it!

You’re active on SLA’s Twitter chat (#SLAtalk) series. Do you use Twitter very often in your work at the New York Public Library?

Indirectly, yes. I have to tell you, I really like Twitter. Everyone has their likes and dislikes in social media. I use Facebook, but I’m not really very fond of it. I’m trying to get into Instagram. But Twitter is different. I click with it.

People complain sometimes that there’s too much garbage on Twitter, too much silly stuff, but I don’t find that. I specifically look for people who only tweet about things that are significant. I once heard a lecture at a Web 2.0 conference, and the presenter was talking about content management, so I decided to follow that person. After a day or two, I realized that this person was talking not just about content management but about personal things. It didn’t interest me, so I unsubscribed immediately.

That’s pretty much how I feel about people I follow, and it’s how I feel about my own tweets. My life goes on, and I don’t talk about it on Twitter. I talk about professional things—I talk about information I want to share, interesting Websites, new publications, new information that comes my way.

And I’m an intensely passionate believer in tweeting at conferences. A conference is held in one place at a specific time, and very few people the world over are going to attend that conference. By tweeting those conferences, you’re not only extending the speakers’ range to the entire world, you’re making it possible for the entire world to share that knowledge.

As librarians, isn’t that, in part, what we’re about—to be able to spread knowledge? To be able to enhance people’s lives by giving them access to knowledge? So, yes, I’m a passionate believer in tweeting at conferences, and I think everyone else who attends conferences and likes to tweet should do so as well.

If you could travel back in time, which musical era would you like to visit, and which musicians would you like to meet?

I’m sort of curious to see what Beethoven was like, although maybe from a distance. The one great composer I think I could get along with was Mozart. He had to deal with students, he had to deal with lots of people, he had to be a social person to get where he got—back then you depended on patronage, so he had to obtain patrons, and he did. So he probably would have been a decent person. And we know he spoke English!

As for musical eras, the late classical era and the early transition to the romantic period—say, 1780 to about 1800—is probably what I’d want to visit.

Working in music, I know that no composer is an ideal person. It seems to me that the greater the composer is, the less likeable he or she is as a human being!


Stuart Hales is senior writer/editor at SLA and editor of Information Outlook.

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