A gift horse, they say, should never be looked in the mouth. But might an exception be made if the horse comes in the form of 20 copies of a 1983 Michael Bolton album?
That's what librarians across the region are wondering as they mine boxes brimming with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of free but dated and obscure compact discs.
The bounty is the result of the multimillion-dollar settlement of a lawsuit filed by 40 states -- including Maryland and Virginia but not the District -- against eight music distributors and retailers accusing them of price fixing.
The settlement required the companies to shell out $67 million to consumers and $75 million worth of CDs, which were divvied up among plaintiff states based on population.
The states then doled out the CDs, mostly to libraries and school systems. And that's left such folks as Phil Hearne, director of the Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg, Va., scratching their heads over their bizarre new collections.
"They were sitting in a warehouse somewhere, that's for sure," Hearne said as he rattled off a list of titles among the 1,800 CDs recently delivered to the library, which, along with the Bolton albums, included multiple copies of teen band Hanson's "Snowed In" and rapper Will Smith's "Willennium."
In Virginia, which sent most of its 138,000 CDs to schools, libraries and hospices, Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) -- who has indicated he will run for governor in 2005 -- showed up last month in Petersburg and Chatham to bequeath hundreds of CDs, Santa Claus-style, to libraries. His office also gave several hundred CDs to organizations that oppose domestic violence -- one of Kilgore's "pet issues," said Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh.
Maryland received 104,000 CDs, all of which were sent to libraries and schools in July and August.
Many recipients said they were delighted with the classical music, expensive box sets and other items that will fatten their collections. For others, the loot was a bittersweet reward -- free and abundant, yes, but also full of duplicates and duds.
Librarians nationwide have grumbled about spending days sorting through music that will never make their collections. Some say they suspect that the music companies duped the states by sending their biggest stinkers. One CD has been singled out for overkill: Whitney Houston's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," a single that went platinum in 2001. Virginia received 1,635 copies of it, and Maryland got 1,200.
"Libraries receiving hundreds of copies of Whitney Houston singing our national anthem or Gregorian chants does not serve the public good or fulfill the spirit of the settlement," Clara N. Bohrer, president of the Public Library Association, said in a statement posted on its Web site.
The final list of titles was the product of prolonged negotiations between music companies and a committee of states. Defendant Sony Music Entertainment Inc., parent company of Houston's record label, Arista, declined to comment on whether it dumped its anthem overstock on the public.
In the end, Murtaugh said, the CDs were randomly stuffed into boxes and shipped.
"It's kind of like Christmas morning," he said. "You don't know what's in the package."
Exactly, some recipients said -- the package is kind of like the one from the great-aunt who hasn't a clue what's popular or what you like.
The Pittsylvania County Public Library's new CDs included Martha Stewart Living's "Spooky, Scary Sounds for Halloween." The Prince George's County library system, which collected more than 8,000 discs, received 75 copies of Christina Aguilera's "My Kind of Christmas." In the Alexandria Public Library's shipment were 15 copies of Barry White's "Staying Power" -- about 11 too many for the four-branch system.
"One Barry White is good enough for each," spokesman Mark Schwartz said. "You can only take so much Barry."
Not everyone is complaining. Officials with the University of Virginia Cancer Center, which received 900 CDs, said they're thrilled to have music that patients can listen to while undergoing radiation or chemotherapy treatments. Schools said the CDs will be good teaching tools.
"We're teachers -- we never say no to free stuff," said Jim Harmon, music supervisor for Loudoun County schools, which received 1,760 CDs.
And Rachel Kennedy, a program director for Fairfax Public Access radio, said the "really strange, strange" mix of 295 CDs the station received is just right for its diverse programming -- although, she acknowledged, "if we were the type of place that had more restrictive playlists, some of the stuff would probably never see the light of day."
Some recipients are planning to swap surplus CDs or sell them, which is allowed if the proceeds are used for music-related programs.
Yale Fineman, acting head of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland at College Park, would prefer to send his whole batch back to Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D). The library received 10,000 CDs -- more than any of the state's 74 other recipients -- but will put only about 500 on the shelves, Fineman said.
"I received multiple copies of what I call unpopular popular music," he said. "So basically, we received a lot of garbage."
Fineman said the unwanted titles will be used in a way that distasteful presents have long been used. They will be re-gifted.
"We may use these for . . . giveaways," he said. "Some of this stuff might look interesting to somebody."