Sloane Leong

For many years, local libraries have allowed patrons to check out physical media—from vinyl LPs to eight tracks to cassettes to CDs—free of charge. Last month, Multnomah County Library launched the Library Music Project, an online platform that’s continuing this legacy of accessibility by curating an online collection of albums from local artists that you can listen to without ever setting foot inside the grand cathedral of books.

“I think in a fundamental way, this is exactly what public libraries have always done,” says Shawn Cunningham, Multnomah County Library’s Director of Communications and Strategic Initiatives. “They are reflections of the communities they serve. At Multnomah County Library, our mission statement is ‘Empowering our community to learn and create.’ Everyone who lives here knows that Portland and Multnomah County have a rich, vibrant music and arts scene. The library thought that this was a place where we could really plug in and bring some things to the community.”

For the library to stay relevant, Cunningham says it’s had to evolve to better serve the needs of this changing community. Since the amount of digital content people use has more than tripled over the past five years, that’s meant expanding Multnomah County Library’s collection—right now it has more than 600,000 titles available digitally. So far, the Library Music Project has clocked 8,600 streams and more than 200 downloads.

“We’re not trying to be Spotify,” Cunningham explains. “We are a public library, so the question was, how do we add something to our community that isn’t already available? And of course, one of the core values is that it’s free and accessible to everyone, so you don’t have to pay $10 a month.”

Anyone can stream albums from more than 120 local artists on the Library Music Project’s user-friendly website, but to make playlists or download songs, you must log in with a Multnomah County Library card. That said, they have reciprocal agreements with all neighboring counties, so if you live in Vancouver, Beaverton, or Clackamas County, you too can get a Multnomah County Library card and access the platform.

It’s not totally uncharted territory—libraries in Madison, Wisconsin; Edmonton, Alberta; Nashville, Tennessee; and Seattle, Washington, all have similar programs in place. And Cunningham says they already had a framework for the Library Music Project: “We did a similar project with local authors, with the Library Writers Project. That’s a model that worked really well, and in fact, some of the books that we received and promoted through that project have gone on to become some of our most popular eBook titles. It’s kind of a win-win for the artists, who are trying to get exposure to their work, and for the community that’s looking to connect with that.”

From rapper Glenn Waco to art-pop singer/songwriter Kelli Schaefer to indie rock supergroup Eyelids, the records offered through the Library Music Project reflect the city’s expansive scenes. Cunningham says the library received more than 400 submissions and plans to open another window later this year. If their album is selected, local musicians receive a modest honorarium and, hopefully, exposure to plenty of new ears.

“It’s not often that you see an establishment such as a library proactively reach out to local artists in order to support them and help them reach a larger audience,” says electronic composer Gil Assayas, who performs under the moniker Glasys. “The submission process was very easy, everything was handled extremely professionally, and I even got a check in the mail for my submission. I am very grateful for Multnomah [County] Library’s support of the local music scene and believe that it’s ideas like this that make the Portland community special.”

“We want to surprise and delight people,” Cunningham explains. “We want to enrich people’s lives. The library is for everyone, and the goal of our work is to provide our community with everything it wants and needs, as far as we can, without any profit motive or ulterior objective in any way.”