THERE'S A PLACE where you can find coal miners singing about a hard life, big bands swinging to rhythms of a bygone era, Sergei Rachmaninoff playing piano concertos and Peruvians blowing gentle flute sounds. You might not notice them at first, though, because they're at a place known more for sounds of silence than memorable melodies -- the public library.
You can think of the library as a musical archive, a museum that lets you borrow its valuable objects. For me, it's like an adult version of a candy store; I have an uncontrollable urge to grab everything in sight.
It's difficult to decide where to turn first. Compact discs beckon, with their promise of flawless sounds and new and unfamiliar music. For those caught up in the latest technology, this is the first place to stop.
But some library patrons still head straight for the LPs, people like Jerome Wright, staff sergeant and cellist with the Army's Chamber Orchestra, who enjoys perusing the shelves at Arlington County's Columbia Pike branch.
Stationed at nearby Fort Myer, Wright makes regular sorties to gather musical gems. When asked about his interest in the records, he displays a slight reluctance, as if to guard his treasure trove.
"What I like is that there are a lot of records here that are out of print, especially classical," he says quietly. With reverence, he mentions an early Leontyne Price album from the 1950s. "You could never find this in a store."
Wright likes to think of the library collection as a reference, a place to find recordings he never knew existed. "It's very rewarding to come to a public place and find records in good condition. People here seem to care. You can't beat it."
And the best part? "It's free," he says, as he rushes off to an orchestra rehearsal with his latest finds.
Sharing Wright's guarded enthusiasm for records is District resident Benjamin Joseph. On a recent day at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, Joseph was searching for, and found, a particular selection he was looking for in the card catalog of some 23,000 LPs.
"This has added a lot to my life," says Joseph, explaining that his newfound interest in classical music has been enhanced by his discovery of the library's resources.
Joseph works near the downtown library, so he makes frequent visits each week. "Maybe there's an element of compulsiveness . . . . I don't want to miss any great masterpieces," he says.
But as much as he visits the library, Joseph says his record selections are not the result of random browsing. "I read music reviews and radio programming schedules, and I know what I want to sample." The library, he says, gives him an opportunity to hear things he would otherwise never have heard, and helps him decide whether to add a certain piece to his CD collection.
"The abundance, the free availability of records is what attracted me," he says. "But I'm not sure I'd like to see crowds of people here borrowing records."
But even if you're not a classical music lover, you never know what you'll find among record collections. Arlington County audio-visual librarian Lisbeth Goldberg characterizes her county's collection as "eclectic . . . . We try to cater to the interests of the general community by acquiring CDs of jazz, R&B, popular rock and Hispanic favorites. We're planning to add Asian titles too."
Area libraries that still offer LPs are well-stocked in American folk music, with anything from sea chanteys and labor organizing songs, to such contemporary and local artists as Cathy Fink.
There's a bounty of blues and jazz, film and musical soundtracks, and international music to keep your turntable spinning till eternity. In the non-musical category, there's an odd assortment: comedy, readings of Shakespeare, and authors reading from their works, like Frank Herbert reading his classic "Dune."
And, if those don't excite you, how about "FDR Speaks, Collected Speeches of 1933-1945" or "Nixon Resigns" ?
Your only problems are deciding what to take out and where to find the time to listen to it all. So, when your ears get the urge for something different, grab your library card, pick out anything that strikes your fancy and head for the check-out counter. You're ready to go home and curl up with some good music. CHECK IT OUT
Here's what you'll find at area library music collections. All library systems allow non-residents to obtain cards for borrowing materials, and all take music donations.
THE DISTRICT -- Branches have LPs only. Patrons can take out six records for two weeks. The largest assortment is at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW. 202/727-1111.
HOWARD COUNTY -- Columbia and Ellicott City branches have LPs, CDs and cassettes. Patrons can take out unlimited number of LPs, three CDs and five cassettes for three weeks days. 301/313-7800.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY -- Branches have LPs, CDs and cassettes. Patrons can take out unlimited number of LPs and three CDs/cassettes for three weeks. 301/840-2515.
PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY -- Branches have cassettes and a few LPs; 10 branches have CDs. Largest collections are at Bowie, Hyattsville, New Carrollton and Oxon Hill. Patrons can take out unlimited number of items for two weeks. 301/699-9656.
ARLINGTON COUNTY -- Branches have LPs (some have cassettes); only the central collection at Columbia Pike location has CDs. Patrons can take out 10 records for three weeks, four CDs for 10 days. Central collection has 7,000 records, 1,400 CDs, Columbia Pike branch, 816 S. Walter Reed Dr. 703/358-5719.
FAIRFAX COUNTY -- Branches have LPs, the larger regional libraries also have CDs. Patrons can take out unlimited number of LPs and four CDs for three weeks. 703/246-2281.
LOUDOUN COUNTY -- LPs and cassettes at Sterling, LPS only at Leesburg and Purcellville. Patrons can take out unlimited number for two weeks. 703/430-9500.
PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY -- Branches have LPs and cassettes. Patrons can take out an unlimited number for three weeks. 703/361-4200.
Burke writer Joan E. Miller can be found most weekends browsing through record stacks at her local library.