For even the shelves shall sing

Music notes

The most extensive coal mining library in the world is reaching out to new audiences by sending a songwriter in residence to venues to sing the praises of its collection, report Fiona M. Forsythe and Jennifer Hillyard.

Our learned institutions often sing the praises of their special collections. Here in Newcastle one institution is doing that – literally!

Through the autumn, the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical  Engineers hosted a songwriter in residence funded by Arts Council England, with the express aim of telling the stories captured in the library and archive collections.

Mining around the world

The institute’s collections cover both coal and metalliferous mining and extend far beyond the Great Northern Coalfield of Northumberland and Durham to Canada, the USA, South America and as far as New Zealand and Australia. As well as the most extensive coal mining library in the world, its archives have been described as the best in the world for scholars to study the early industrial revolution for the rich detail and observation by viewers who travelled around Europe noting processes, practises, innovations, and costs of production in immaculate notebooks. The early railways are also documented in elaborate detail providing a record of waggonway development through to steam locomotion in a period of over 400 years. 

Snapshot of the collections

Early in 2014, Fiona introduced singer/songwriter Gareth Davies-Jones to the institute’s library. Gareth was immediately struck by the setting of the library. Reflecting on that meeting, he said ‘The grand Victorian architecture and the atmosphere really does lend itself to song writing, and I wanted to draw out a snapshot of all that the collections have to offer.’ Fiona and Gareth met with Jennifer and Simon Brooks, Secretary of the institute to explore whether a dream could become a reality. Somewhere in that meeting the idea of ‘The Seam: a songwriting residency’ took shape. 

'For art and science'

From the institute’s perspective this was an ideal project, and came along at just the right time. Over recent years it has established itself as a venue and the Edwardian Cuban red mahogany lined lecture theatre has become popular with a variety of musical performers. The building is an outstanding piece of Victorian Gothic architecture inside and out and is listed Grade 2.* The founding fathers gave the Institute the strapline ‘For Art and Science’. 

Developing our audience

The residency aims to produce a body of work to inspire and excite people to visit the Institute. Once Gareth had written the pieces (around 10 new songs), he would then take The Seam on tour. Specifically we wanted to explore our audience development techniques, looking at one particular imbalance. The  library has around 140 volunteers, roughly split between genders and covering a wide range of cultural and educational backgrounds. However, looking at audience profiles for the various music events, the same diversity is not found. Could we, by working with Gareth, develop both our audience of library users and increase the diversity of the audiences attending our other events? In short – by taking the library ‘on tour’, could we increase the numbers of people visiting us?

On the road

As we write, Gareth is putting the finishing touches to the scores, and recorded his work in January in the institute’s lecture ­theatre. The first work from The Seam is a song called Practical Coal Mining based on the engineering manual of the same name (check Soundcloud for a sample track).

We have valued the support of library colleagues in the North East, and two libraries (Palace Green Library Café, Durham University and Fenham Public Library, Newcastle City Libraries) will ‘for one night only’ become music venues!

About The Seam

The Seam’s launch gig is on 7 February at the Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, and there has already been a lot of local media interest.

Find out about the tour on the institute's website and Facebook page.

Watch a BBC feature on The Seam on iPlayer (19:22 minutes in to the programme).

Twitter: @MiningInstitute and @WaterandLight


Image source: "Music notes" by cilipmarketing, used under CC BY-NC 2.0


Read our blog comment guidelines