Loud and Quiet: Get it Loud in Libraries

For ten years, Stewart Parsons has been staging gigs in libraries for the likes of Adele and British Sea Power. With a big nationwide programme on the books, he tells us why Get It Loud in Libraries is so important

Feature by Anastasia Connor | 10 Nov 2016

"Whitesnake at Preston Guildhall, 1981. I grew up loving heavy rock.” Eyes lit up with childlike enthusiasm, Stewart Parsons describes his first ever gig; perhaps not the kind of band you might associate with a mild-mannered librarian, sitting in the futuristic grandeur of Liverpool Central Library. "The next stop was The Pretenders and new wave. Then I realised there were just two kinds of music: good and bad. I like all kinds of music, all the good stuff.” He laughs nervously but the excitement in his voice betrays just how much music means to him. A true music fan, no doubt about it. 

Stewart “grew up obsessed with music and libraries”. Then, whilst working as a music librarian in Lancaster, he hit upon the idea of bringing live music to libraries "to make libraries meaningful, useful and enjoyable for young people who hadn't visited in years, if at all.” There was no expectation, no long-term plan but from the very first gig he knew they were onto something. 

There were, of course, a few questioning voices but Stewart carried on regardless and the breakthrough came in May 2006 with the arrival of Long Blondes. A recent signing to Rough Trade, the band commanded a lot of music media attention, which resulted in a report in the NME. The next step was 2007's Mr Hudson and the Library tour that earned rave reviews in The Times and The Guardian. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ten years on, and Get It Loud in Libraries alumni include global names and indie heroes like Adele, Wolf Alice, The Vaccines, Gruff Rhys and Low. With so many illustrious names it’s impossible to resist the temptation of asking about his favourite moments. He takes a deep breath whilst pondering the question. “I’m not just saying this because of who she is,” he replies apologetically, "but I can’t ignore how amazing it was seeing Adele in that tiny music library in Lancaster, perched on the stool we borrowed from a pub across the road. Her set lasted just 20 minutes. Four songs on a old, really out of tune guitar but everyone was just 'Oh my God!'"

Then there were British Sea Power in Morecambe, who “used ordinance survey maps as skirts tied their waists.” Parsons laughs as he recalls how “the local librarian was shrieking with horror” but he felt "secretly really pleased at this kind of subterfuge and subversive behaviour.” More recently, it was Meilyr Jones, whose performance in Kendal felt like a real underground cultural happening, leaving Parsons feeling both elated and dewey-eyed. He has a lot of affection for the rising Welsh star after spotting him earlier the same night in the library, browsing through the books. 

With the backdrop of Anna Meredith’s soundcheck filling the vast space of the Central Library, Steward’s words acquire an added poignance. “We’ve never separated learning time and music time. It’s part of the same continuum. I want to argue that the core aims and objectives of libraries are sharpened, crystallised into a performance that draws from stories and people, from heritage and from the future.” Pausing to gather his thoughts, he continues: “In the end it creates a memory of a special event for people who may never have been to a library before.”

And it’s drawing those people in and creating those unique communal experiences that fuels Stewart’s passion. True, there have been library tour gigs in grand places like Westminster Reference Library in London but they do not seem as important in the scheme of things. What matters is giving opportunities to people in places like Morecambe, Kendal, Skelmersdale and Oldham, where bands never tour and libraries can become community hubs, centres of cultural uprising. 

With government funding for libraries under threat, Parsons feels that their project is now more important than ever, especially when it comes to the younger generation. Over the years, Get it Loud in Libraries has become a platform for offering cultural industries skills to young people “who otherwise may not have got a chance.” It goes back to the early days in Lancaster when he started getting approached by kids who wanted to get involved. Now they have a pool of volunteers, with success stories like Robbie Williams (“his real name”) who now runs his own audio production company. "We like young people to be the core of it. They run the website. They run the front of house. They run all the graphic art for posters.”

With a decade of experience and many success stories under its belt, Get It Loud in Libraries is approaching a new milestone. There have been a few national tours and recent one-off gigs outside of the region, but until now the North West has been the epicentre of this musical venture. All this is about to change when the programme gets a national boost, as the GILiL team are currently in the process of creating a toolkit enabling libraries across the country to take part in the project. The toolkit will give a step-by-step guide to the whole process, offering opportunities for libraries to hire the team to do the work for them.

Is Parsons nervous about this latest development? His response seem suitably humble: "Being library-institutionalised people we’re not used to selling stuff but we know that what we’ve got has a value. We’ve worked hard, so it’s only fair we can’t just give this stuff away.” He speaks with passion about the need to find the right people who share their ethos, their heartfelt love of libraries, learning and music. 

And the same applies to artists. Not everyone fits the bill. "I think with all our artists there is a subtext. Not just the artist but there is something going on within that artist that speaks to us as a library organisation.” Parsons cites Young Fathers as an example, who were “absolutely into community audiences and young audiences, getting their music out there, going beyond the expected” as well as providing shows that were “just blinding.” 

But there are also those who got away. Belle & Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand are there, top of the list, Parsons' voice is trembling with awe at the mere mention of those names. "Even if they just wanted to come and curate, or just played the first album from start to finish. I would go for that.”

We part as Anna Meredith’s soundcheck draws to a close. It’s been a long day and many gigs preceding it but the crew are visibly excited about seeing and hearing the Scottish Album of the Year winner. Why? “Because we care about the artists, we care about the audiences and we care about this library space.”

Reading List: Anna Meredith and Meilyr Jones on their current reads

Anna Meredith: "Slightly depressingly, I seem to prefer audiobooks to reading books when I’m super busy, but am looking forward to some serious sofa time with the hard stuff over Christmas. Just now I’m listening to The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan which is so harrowing and beautiful. I'm balancing that with the new Alan Partridge book Nomad, which has already made execute an embarrassing laugh/ pig-snort on the bus."

Meilyr Jones: "I love the poetry of Goethe (and also Metamorphosis by Ovid). I find his poetry comforting and fresh and reviving, like reading the words of a friend through time. Especially good in the misty and illusionary-concrete time that is of now:

Stars you are unfortunate, I pity you, Beautiful as you are, shining in your glory, 
Who guide seafaring men through stress and peril 
And have no recompense from gods or mortals, 
Love you do not, nor do you know what love is."