Checking out banjos, guitars, and mandolins, but not pianos at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Scott Lee of Center City tries out the banjo

Scott Lee of Center City tries out the banjo

What happens when the Free Library of Philadelphia announces it will begin lending out musical instruments? It immediately get lots of calls for people looking to unload instruments gathering dust in a closet or corner. 

So far the lending instrument collection has an acoustic and an electric guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, and ukulele. Soon it might include violins.  The library has been offered a piano, but does not yet have plans on how to loan out a piano.

On Monday morning, the Free Library hosted an open jam session to launch the Musical Instrument Collection, with a circle of chairs on the floor of the music department and the six shiny, new instruments tuned up and ready.

It attracted Scott Lee, a self-taught guitarist who mostly plays for his own amusement, accompanying blues records at home.

“I woke up this morning and looked at my library account,” said Lee, sitting in the music department wearing denim overalls, trying to figure out the banjo tuning. “Prominently displayed was an announcement for a music jam session. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s in about 45 minutes.’ I threw on my worst dungarees and came right over.”

Lee said he likes all kinds of music, except country music. He just couldn’t get into country, until he heard a bluegrass band playing in Rittenhouse Square.

“Talk about melodies and rhythms popping off the instruments,” said Lee. “The banjo player was really phenomenal.”

Lee wanted to try the banjo, but he did not want to buy one and doesn’t know anyone who has one. He was the first customer of the Music Instrument Collection, checking out the banjo for three weeks — not enough time to become the next Earl Scruggs, but enough to get a feel for it.

Because lending musical instruments invariably involves costly repairs, very few public libraries offer them. The Free Library has allotted a small budget for damage, but most minor repairs (broken strings, loose bridges, etc.) will fall to the librarian who hatched the idea, Perry Genovesi.

Genovesi works in the Free Library’s music department, and, when off the clock, plays bass in a few West Philadelphia punk and art-rock bands.

“In the library community it cleaves two ways: there are folks that say, ‘This is ridiculous. All the instruments are going to be broken,'” he said. “The other camp is so on board and there are folks that want to replicate it.”

The Musical Instrument Collection will not just benefit library patrons. As soon as the concept was approved by Genovesi’s bosses, other library departments — like children’s and culinary — wanted to borrow instruments for their own special programming inside the library.

“I have a secret objective to rebuild the Gamble and Huff empire, making an army of Philadelphia musicians armed with instruments,” he said. “To make Philadelphia a city of music.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.