Walkabout: In own small way, use of ukuleles strikes fine chord as a lure to library

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When I was growing up, libraries were about books and nothing but books. I chewed my way through the ones in my hometown library -- not all of them, but it seemed possible. Childhood was a yawning expanse when I was going through it, and the library was small.

By the time I hit high school, you could check record albums out of the library. That was way cool at the time. Fast-forward a few decades to libraries that have books, music, movies, computers, coffee bars, quilt shows, art exhibits and, in one location of the Carnegie Library system, ukuleles.

The Carnegie system opened a pop-up location in October in a storefront at 1206 Arlington Ave. in Allentown, a southern hilltop neighborhood. The temporary branch is there through next February as part of the LYNCS, or Library in Your Neighborhood Community and Schools, program.

There is no coffee, but there are books and CDs to check out and a row of computers along one wall, beanbag chairs in the window and a round table and small chairs for the Ukulele Club to occupy Thursdays after school, from 3:30 to 4 p.m.

I popped in last week on the second meeting of the club, whose membership varies. Whoever's interest is piqued when the small, four-string instruments are unpacked is welcome to join the circle with teachers Dan Hensley and Tim Smith.

Mr. Hensley is an outreach librarian based in the central library in Oakland. Mr. Smith works at the Knoxville branch.

"I saw the poster for a ukulele club at our branch," Mr. Smith said. "I have played maybe three years and decided to join." He brings three of his ukuleles.

"I play guitar," Mr. Hensley said, "so I am learning along with the kids." He brings four ukes provided by the Carnegie system.

In starting the club, Mr. Hensley was inspired by his wife's turn as a librarian in a neighborhood of San Francisco that had a large Pacific Islander population. "A lot of the kids played ukes, and they brought them to the library," he said. His wife's inspiration to learn the ukulele was, "I believe, Marilyn Monroe's character in 'Some Like It Hot.' "

The ukulele is itself kind of hot these days. Throughout one's life, all you have to do is scratch the surface on one topic or another to find a whole little world of enthusiasts.

This from a Los Angeles Times article in 2009: "Thanks to the Internet, the humble ukulele is pushing its recent popularity well beyond anything that old-time performers Don Ho, Arthur Godfrey or even Tiny Tim could imagine.

"From YouTube to manufacturers' websites, from bulletin boards to iPhone and BlackBerry applications that mimic ukes and teach chords, the Internet has been stoking the craze for nearly two years and unveiling fresh talent."

On mentalfloss.com, I found this: "Zooey Deschanel plays one. So do [actor] William H. Macy and Mr. Schuester on 'Glee.' Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder accompanies himself exclusively on one for his latest album [in 2011], 'Ukulele Songs.' Meanwhile, every third TV commercial seems to feature a soundtrack of a strumming ukulele."

I had somehow missed this craze, but a 7-year-old named Taylor and a couple of 10-year-olds who go to the Allentown pop-up after school haven't.

The class/club is geared toward tweens, Mr. Hensley said, "but it doesn't matter who wants to play. We hope word will spread so we can make this intergenerational."

The purpose of "ukulele Thursdays" is "to see what other kinds of literacy we can address at our libraries and how we can use the hidden expertise of our staffs," he said.

Last Thursday, Lauren Stuparitz, who works at the Allentown pop-up, played along with the small group, her second effort. "I've learned three chords," she said before the group launched into Taio Cruz's song "Dynamite." Two 10-year-olds lay on the bean bag chairs singing along.

That's another thing that has changed about libraries: Nobody says, "Shhhhh!"


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk

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