The Library as an After-Hours Live Music Venue

When you drive past the main library building on most evenings, after the library has wrapped up business for the day, you’ll see a dark building, its face an expanse of glass reflecting lights from traffic, surrounding buildings, and the moon. If you drove by the building on Saturday, March 8, however, you may have noticed the glow of lights and signs of activity within the building, long after we had closed for the day. Was the library staff working late into the night, rearranging books? Was there a cleaning crew tending to the carpets? No, Saturday night saw the most recent of our ongoing series of musical performances at the library – a concert of traditional Irish music, performed by the Nicole Rabata Trio.

South Portland Public Library After Hours is our name for the diverse series of musical performances hosted at the library over the past year and a half. Back in the summer of 2012, the library’s adult programming committee, headed by Deputy Library Director Susan Samberg, began discussing the addition of live music to the library’s slate of programming. The goal was to bring something different, something that would break from our traditional programing and add a new and, perhaps, unexpected flavor to the library’s activities.

As we brainstormed this new series, we wanted to do something special. We have hosted live music in the library over the years but – as with a lot of the library’s events – had traditionally held the performances in our large, basement-level, events space. This space, while functional, is far from what could be considered a “comfortable” space. Since we had been working on cleaning up and rethinking the upstairs public service spaces of the building, we thought it might be fun to try and pull off a concert in the library proper. How could we do this, though, without totally disrupting the regular users of the library? We decided we’d do it late, after the library closed for the day.

So, on the Saturday of the first concert, after the library closed, we got to work transforming the space. Tables and chairs, filled with people reading and working with their laptops during the library’s usual business hours, were moved aside. A curtain was hung in front of our collection of biographies, defining a performance stage. We brought in some plants and experimented with which lights to leave on and which to shut off, to create a comfortable ambiance for enjoying music. Rows of chairs we set up for the audience we hoped would show up. In short order, the library had taken on the feel of an intimate performance venue, with the expanse of glass providing a view of the life of South Portland going on outside.

On the day of that first concert, the library wrapped up business at its usual Saturday closing time of 6pm. When we re-opened the doors at 6:40, 115 people showed up to see Cul de Sax, a saxophone quartet, play a lively show. The popularity of the show far exceeded both our expectations and our capacity. The 50-odd parking spaces in the library’s lot filled up fast. Soon after, all possible seating (and standing room) in the library was filled as well.

Since that first concert, the After Hours… series has continued with the frequency of a show approximately every other month.   Music has ranged from the Gerswin interpretations of Cul de Sax to bluegrass (Tricky Britches), to Irish/country (Two Old Friends), latin music (Primo Trio) and the New Orleans- and Chicago style jazz and swing of the Beallmy Jazz Band.

Show after show, the library’s space is filled with a mix of people known to us as regular library users, as well as a large number of visitors who have never been inside the library before. At each show, we hear positive comments about the building, the interesting use of space for the show, and, of course the music. Statements such as, “I didn’t expect a library to have this kind of music!” are not uncommon.

Of course, no discussion of library programming of any kind – and this concert series, in particular – should ever happen without a huge note of thanks to the Friends of the South Portland Public Library. The Friends provide all financial support to allow us to book these talented musicians. Without the Friends, these shows – and much of the library’s activities beyond our most basic services – would be impossible.

So, if you have enjoyed our past shows, or are interested in catching one, there are many more coming up. The After Hours… series will be continuing on for the foreseeable future and, in fact, the shows are picking up pace. April 12th will see the ProfTones, an eclectic cover band performing a mix of R&B, folk and tock & roll. The month of May sees two After Hours… shows, with an encore performance by the Bellamy Jazz Band on May 3rd and the Casco Bay Tummlers bringing Klezmer music to the library, for the first time, on May 31st. If you know of a musician or group that you’d like to see play at the library as part of our series, please let us know or have them get in touch with us!

Kevin M. Davis, Director, South Portland Public Library

This post was originally published as a Library Links column in the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Sentry on March 14, 2014

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