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#Lib4Ham: Public Libraries Discover the Value of Hamilton
Posted On August 2, 2016
If you’re interested in music, theater, history, or pop culture, you’ve heard at least a little about the Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical (or you’ve possibly already been “in the room where it happens,” in which case your NewsBreaks editor is extremely jealous). If you’re unfamiliar with the show, here’s how it came about: The wildly talented Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose first Broadway venture, In the Heights, won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical) wrote Hamilton’s book, music, and lyrics. He was inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography, Alexander Hamilton. Miranda has said that by the time he finished Chapter 2, he knew Alexander Hamilton’s life would make a great hip-hop musical that could star actors of black, Hispanic, and Asian descent. If that sounds as if it’s something that hasn’t been done on Broadway before, that’s because it hasn’t. And now Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon.

How to account for its rise to the top? Man, the show is nonstop*:

  • Jan. 20–May 3, 2015: Hamilton runs at The Public Theater amid glowing praise and sold-out crowds.
  • July 13, 2015: Hamilton begins its Broadway run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Even now, shows are consistently sold out, and tickets on the secondary market regularly go for an average of more than $1,000.
  • Oct. 16, 2015: Atlantic Records releases Hamilton’s Original Broadway Cast Recording.
  • Feb. 15, 2016: Members of the cast and creative team win the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.
  • March 14, 2016: Members of the cast participate in a daylong event at the White House featuring student workshops and performances for the president and first lady.
  • April 12, 2016: Grand Central Publishing releases the book Hamilton: The Revolution, by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter.
  • April 18, 2016: Hamilton and Miranda win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in the Drama category.
  • June 12, 2016: Members of the cast and creative team win 11 of the 16 Tony Awards for which Hamilton is nominated, including Best Musical.

*For the non-fans, yes, this is a play on a lyric from the show. No, I’m not sorry.

This fall will bring the release of The Hamilton Mixtape, an album of songs inspired by the musical; the start of the Chicago-based production on Sept. 27; and the airing of the PBS documentary Hamilton’s America on Oct. 17.

As the show racks up more and more awards, library staffers have been taking notice. Its cast recording album is available via hoopla, which means libraries using that service can recommend it to patrons. And since the musical is based on a book, library staffers can easily point patrons toward the source material, as well as toward books with related subjects.

Getting Caught Up in the Hoopla

“I wanted to highlight a part of our library’s collection that some of our patrons might not be aware of—in this case, digital content available through our hoopla subscription. Hamilton had been huge on social media forever, but I figured that its recent Grammy win would put it on the mainstream map, so it made sense to let folks know where it could be accessed,” says Jessica Lee-Cullin, teen librarian at East Lansing Public Library in Michigan. On March 5, 2016, she posted about the album on the library’s blog and embedded song clips.

Molly Wetta, collection development librarian at Lawrence Public Library in Kansas, says she’s “had a lot of luck introducing patrons to hoopla, because the Hamilton cast album was available for streaming with no holds through the platform.” Her Dec. 25, 2015, post on the library’s website, “‘My Heart Went Boom’: Hip Hop, History, and Falling in Love With Hamilton the Musical,” offers a list of reasons for patrons to listen to the music—including the rhymes and the history—as well as eight items to check out before seeing the musical, such as Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s: Three Men, Five Great Wines, and the Evening That Changed America.

Arlington Public Library in Virginia spotlighted Hamilton on Oct. 19, 2015, with “Hamilton: Our Current Obsession,” a post about related items available in the library’s collection, such as the PBS documentary The Duel on DVD and the biography John Adams by David McCullough (which had been in high demand while HBO was airing its John Adams miniseries in 2008). Jennifer Rothschild, branch manager of Arlington’s Shirlington Branch Library, says, “The soundtrack had just come out on streaming, and I was just obsessed with it, as a regular private citizen. I knew that it was very popular just in general, and it was available on streaming through hoopla, which is a relatively new service for us, so we’re always looking for ways to promote it, because not everyone knows we have it.”

Showcasing the Library’s Related Content

Understandably, Chernow’s book and the musical’s companion volume (Hamilton: The Revolution) have been in high demand. So it’s logical that many libraries such as Arlington and Lawrence would post a list of read-alikes.

Liz Osisek, teen services librarian at Anderson Public Library in Indiana, posted one such list on Jan. 11, 2016. Her first recommendation, Chernow’s book, has had 14 checkouts, with both of the library’s print copies checked out and one person on the waiting list, as of this writing. She says the library also has two copies of Hamilton: The Revolution, whose popularity has already necessitated a waiting list. The other books she recommended, all with several checkouts each, are Lafayette in the Somewhat United States; The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783–1789; War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation; and Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.

Of course, it’s impossible to know whether an interest in Hamilton draws patrons to the history titles, but it’s worth noting that this year, Founding Mothers had 14 checkouts of the regular print book, 16 checkouts of the large print book, and 33 checkouts of the audiobook on CD. Hamilton gives Revolutionary-era women prominent voices in the narrative of the show, and patrons are obviously interested in books that give women a place in the actual historical narrative.

At Arlington, Rothschild says American history is perennially popular due to its close proximity to Washington, D.C., and Mount Vernon. Even so, “I’d seen that the musical was based specifically on the Chernow biography, and I went to see if we had any copies of that book. I was surprised to see that even though it was a slightly older book, all of our copies were checked out, and we had a hold list that was rapidly growing.” The library has 19 copies of Chernow’s book and recently ordered six more. As of this writing, it has 104 people on its holds list.

Doug Reside, curator of the Billy Rose Theatre Division at The New York Public Library (NYPL), used his Aug. 7, 2015, post, “Hamilton: The Archive,” to highlight some of NYPL’s primary sources. He had recently seen the show, and he knew that many Hamilton-related artifacts had been digitized for the library’s collection in early 2015. “At the New York Public Library, we preserve the artifacts that allow such stories to be told, and we have an especially strong collection of archives related to the women and men whose lives inspired the characters in the musical,” he writes. “Since tickets to Hamilton are about as rare as Gutenberg Bibles, I thought it might be fun to summarize the story … using NYPL’s digitized collections.”

Opportunities for Education

Hamilton is not 100% historically accurate—it’s art, so liberties were taken with the timeline and other details in favor of a cohesive narrative. Nevertheless, it provides ample opportunities for making history come alive for students and patrons. Libraries are interpreting Hamilton’s educational value in different ways.

Lee-Cullin shares, “I briefly taught English as a foreign language and still find myself noting ways to build hypothetical lesson plans around different forms of media that might be more fun and relatable for students who process information in different ways. Hamilton is especially exciting because music in general and hip-hop in particular is a pretty nonstandard vehicle for teaching U.S. history. The musical genre, the show’s casting philosophy [of featuring actors of color], and the narrative emphasis on Alexander’s immigrant status have combined to create an opportunity for young people and students of color to engage with a subject area that, for the most part, has not represented them.”

“A couple of years ago we had a meeting at the library about the increasing importance of primary source material about history in public education,” says Reside. When Hamilton was announced for a run at The Public Theater, he began to think about how to expose patrons to history using the show. “A major theme of Hamilton is the importance of archives in preserving legacy and telling stories. [Hamilton’s wife] Eliza tries, at one point, to remove herself from the ‘narrative’ by burning Hamilton’s letters, but then puts herself back in the narrative and becomes a kind of de facto archivist by trying to make sense of his ‘thousands of pages of writing.’ We help researchers and artists tell the stories of the past by preserving the work of everyone related to the theatre industry—designers, casting agencies, actors, writers, composers, directors, even software developers.”

Wetta is not particularly interested in American history, but when she became a fan of Hamilton, she was inspired to learn more about it. Library staffers have “talked about the show in the context of lots of contemporary issues like race relations and the current political issues like immigration and state versus federal powers. … Anytime a pop culture phenomenon can inspire people to dig deeper into any topic, whether history, music, or politics, it’s the perfect opportunity for libraries to help patrons make those connections and discover new resources.”

Rothschild says she recognized the show’s potential for education during its portrayal of writing the Federalist Papers. “I have this overwhelming desire to read the Federalist Papers, which I had to read in high school, and they’re boring. … Maybe if Hamilton had been around when I was in high school, the Federalist Papers would have been a lot more exciting. … That’s the beauty of Hamilton. I think because it inspired me to look back at things with a new interest that I’ve already studied at some point, but all of a sudden it seemed interesting, teachers can really use this to get kids to be interested when they first encounter it.”

She continues, “I think one of the other exciting things is we’ve seen a lot more books about Hamilton come out with the musical. … As the musical says, every other founding father is remembered, but we’ve forgotten him, and we see such a resurgence because of this musical. There’s all this other material out about Hamilton now. I don’t know any other musical that’s created so much academic interest.”

Addie Matteson, who works part-time at the Hamilton (yes, Hamilton) East Public Library in Indiana, is also an elementary school library media specialist. She reviewed the cast recording for Hamilton East’s website when the library first acquired it to let patrons know it was available. Now, she says the album and the companion book have long holds lists, and they’re always checked out. At her day job, some of the students are musical theater fans, but none of them were familiar with Hamilton.

She wrote an article for School Library Journal about her experiences using Hamilton in the classroom. “We did a series of close reading lessons using three songs from Hamilton. I selected them very carefully for language content, and they were songs that fit into the part of their American Revolution curriculum that they were studying in February. I told them about the show, and we watched a couple of video clips from YouTube, and we would listen to songs, and they would discuss some of the things they heard and the connections to what they were studying and their guesses on words that they didn’t know. It was a lot of fun and the show reached the kids that I knew would want to hear it.”

Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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