Apr 30, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

For music education advocates, the fundamental challenge is one of access.

Learning an instrument and playing music can have a profound impact, but access to training and in particular to often-expensive musical instruments can be a prohibitive expense. Some looking to lower that barrier of access have asked, “What if you could borrow an instrument as easily as you could check out a library book?” There are a handful of musical instrument lending libraries in the United States and Australia, but Canada might very well be the world leader in showing how viable the concept can be.

In early April, the Toronto Public Library system debuted an instrument lending library at its Parkdale branch. The program, which is backed financially by Sun Trust Financial, launched initially with 100 instruments and is taking donations to expand its collection. The library offers a range of classical and acoustic guitars, keyboards, percussion and violins. Instruments can be checked out at no cost with a library card for 3 weeks at a time with up to 2 renewals for 9 weeks total.

As many library patrons are going online for research and other resources traditionally accessed through a trip to a local library, public libraries have often looked to expand their services to meet their mission. Many libraries in the US have entered the ebook market, and last year the Toronto Public Library partnered with the Toronto Tool Library, which offers everything from stud finders to 3D printers.

“[The instrument lending library] certainly fits in with our mandate to provide opportunity and information to all citizens, especially those who may find opportunities such as renting an instrument beyond their means,” said Lisa Moran who is the service manager for the Parkdale branch where the library is housed.

The Toronto instrument library is the first in Canada to be housed in a public library setting — reports suggest other Canadian library systems might soon follow — but variations on the model have been popping up across the country in the past decade. Joe’s M.I.L.L. in Kingston, Ontario is one of the oldest instrument lending libraries and was founded in 2001 in memory of musician Joe Chithalen.

Following Chithalen’s death in 1999, bandmate Wally High worked with Chithalen’s friends and family to follow through on the idea of finding a way for “everyone [to have] a chance to play an instrument,” something High and Chithalen discussed often. The result was the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library or Joe’s M.I.L.L.

The library currently offers more than 800 instruments — everything from guitars, cellos and drum kits to tubas and didgeridoos. After a $10 registration fee, renting an instrument is free, and the library operates as a charity supported by donations.

Long-time Joe’s M.I.L.L. Librarian Roger Eccleston said that patrons include professional musicians, hobbyists, seniors and retirees and many who played an instrument long ago and want to give it another try. Their largest demographic though is parents of student musicians at schools where instruments aren’t provided.

“At the start of each school year, all of our ‘band’ instruments such as flutes, clarinets, trumpets etc. are snapped up to supply as many of [these students] as we can manage,” he said. “We never have enough, though. There are currently 18 names on the waiting list — even [this late in the school year] — for people wanting to borrow a saxophone.”

Inherent in this kind of model is trust. The value of an upright bass dwarfs the replacement cost of the average book lent out by a traditional library, and even then, traditional libraries often make their most expensive and rare books only available for use within the library building.

For Eccleston and the others who operate Joe’s M.I.L.L. looking to solve a problem of access, it didn’t make sense to worry about what could go wrong when you lend out instruments worth hundreds or thousands of dollars.

“Early on it was easy!” he said. “We only had a handful of instruments, and virtually everybody in Kingston knew, loved and respected Joe Chithalen.

The organization now has more than 3,000 issued borrower cards and logs more than 6,000 annual loans. Eccleston said that does present a challenge to track, and staff does spend many hours reminding borrowers when their instrument is overdue (though he points out “how many folks always return their dvd rentals on time?”) But even still, they see very few losses.

“There will always, of course, be the odd ‘bad apple,’ but I believe the fact that our loss rate is so minimal is due to that same respect for Joe and [his memory] that we have enjoyed since the library’s inception,” Eccleston said.

Terry Snider, who is the president of Joe’s M.I.L.L., called trust the foundation for the library and also its source of its strength.

“From the board’s perspective, if we focused on risk [and loss], we would not be able to meet our mission,” Snider said. “What we give to the community is returned many times over. Losses are minimal compared with the outcomes.”

Since its founding, Eccleston said the library has looked to encourage others wanting to emulate the model and provided advice, support and in some cases instrument “starter kits” — like it did in 2015 for one organization in Ottawa.

“It is our hope that every community will get on board and that instrument libraries will one day be just as normal as book libraries,” said Eccleston.