A bit of a bind

Happy ever after? Praetorius and Richard Strauss share a volume.

Happy ever after? Praetorius and Richard Strauss share a volume. Public Domain.

I was recently looking at a volume of motets (M230.b.95.110) here at the UL, which contained some very strange bed-fellows. Harrison Birtwistle‘s motets from The Last Supper rubbed shoulders with a sequence of Easter motets by Byrd; while further on Richard Strauss and Praetorius sat happily together with only John Rose‘s Hymn to the Father separating them. Such an eclectic volume may seem rather mad, but there are good reasons why many of the UL’s music volumes have such a range of material.

The Music Department has one of the highest percentages of tract volumes in the library. Tract volumes are volumes containing items that were received unbound. Too slim to be bound separately, they were subsequently bound together by the UL into a single volume containing multiple items. This might range from just 2 or 3 items – a set of study scores of Brahms’ symphonies, for example, to 20+ items of short pieces. The reason for the number of tract volumes is simple, it’s down to the nature of music publication, with most sheet music arriving at the UL unbound and consisting sometimes of just a few pages.

On arrival in the Music Department a decision is made whether or not to bind the item. Fragile, rare, otherwise unbindable, or oversized items will be boxed and placed on closed access, as will items that are unlikely to be of academic interest – a recent arrival, Black Sabbath for ukelele, will (you will be disappointed to know) not be gracing the open shelves in the near future.

Binding bundles

After weeding the non-bindables, decisions have to be made about the bindables. There are two key considerations in the process, classification and size. The medium of the work is crucial in classification, although vocal music is further sub-divided by form. For example, operas will go into M260, songs to M290, while orchestral music will go to M310, and piano music to M340.

As far as size is concerned items that are of markedly different sizes can’t be bound together. And nice as it would be to keep all the works of Bach together with some items only measuring 20 cms and others 30+, it’s just not possible; items have to be split by size to make maximum use of the available shelf space. Even a change of a few centimetres can make a huge difference in terms of shelving.

When the sheet music has been divided by class and size it’s then on to the next stage of the process. If there are not sufficient items around of a similar size and class the piece will be assigned to a binding box where it will wait for its dream partner to arrive. For the lucky piece of music there will be other items around of a similar class and size that can be bound with it immediately. Where possible, items from the same period or composer will be bound together, but sometimes in order to get volumes on to the shelves sooner rather than later it is necessary to put items together irrespective of any considerations beyond size and class.

Freshly bound volumes

Once you have a chunk of suitable items, they will usually be placed in alphabetical order by composer. This ensures that if the tract volume of motets you’ve opened starts with Gesualdo, you won’t find any Bach lurking further on in the volume. Items that are part of a series will be bound sequentially. Finally they are strung together into a binding bundle. Once this is done the bundles are passed on to the binders, where they will become a shiny new tract volume ready to be released onto the open shelves.

The freedom of the open shelves. The Anderson Room in 1935.
Copyright Cambridge University Library

The process of binding is time consuming. A suitable bundle can only be prepared for binding once complementary volumes have arrived in the department, and as, in any case, binding tract volumes is generally more complicated than the work involved in binding single volumes it can be some time before music arrives on the open shelves. So please don’t be afraid to ask a librarian if you can’t find what you require, it may just be in a binding backlog waiting for that extra piece of music that will transport it from its unbound state to the grandeur of an open shelf score.



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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2 Responses to A bit of a bind

  1. Pingback: UL sheet music priority survey results | MusiCB3 Blog

  2. Pingback: Guess the weight? | MusiCB3 Blog

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