The Madison Public Library’s growing vinyl collection is an eclectic hit. – Isthmus

Guy Hankel remembers the first album he ever bought, which was on vinyl: The Beatles’ 1962–1966, also known as the Red Album, which compiled the hits from the first half of the band’s career. 

Hankel, 57, a librarian at Madison Public Library, would go on to buy hundreds of other vinyl records in his teens, especially a lot of punk and post-punk bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Pere Ubu, and Echo and the Bunnymen. 

“I would tape all of my albums so I wouldn’t ruin the condition,” he remembers. “Which has paid off, decades later.” 

At a time when streaming dominates the music industry, many people are rediscovering (or discovering) the magic of vinyl records. In 2016, Hankel decided it was time to restart the library’s own vinyl collection.

“It became clear to me that the resurgence of vinyl was not going to be a fad. It was going to last quite a while,” he says. “Fewer and fewer people had CD players. They aren’t making them for cars anymore. In a community like Madison there are tons of people who like vinyl.”

In 1948, the Madison Public Library started a record collection with the purchase of 359 78 rpm classical records, Hankel says. It grew to include 33 rpm records, which ended up dominating the market. Starting in the early 1990s, the library began buying CDs, which quickly overtook vinyl in popularity.

A few items from that earlier vinyl collection remain, mostly local releases and some rarities. The rest was purged, likely during the library’s annual book sale fundraisers. 

The new collection, held at the Monroe Street branch and Central (but available to reserve at any branch), includes more than 800 titles. There are also a handful of portable turntables that patrons can check out to play them on. 

The vinyl collection is still dwarfed by the CD collection, which numbers more than 40,000. But circulation of vinyl jumped 32% last year over 2022, while CD circulation dipped by about 2%. 

Hankel believes that the music format can influence how people listen. With digital formats, it is much easier to jump from song to song, artist to artist or genre to genre. “Playing music on a turntable can often provide for a more critical listening experience because you’re tethered to that player,” he says. 

Many believe that vinyl sounds better than digital formats. Hankel says other factors are probably more important, including how well the format is mastered and what device you’re playing the music on. 

The new collection appears to be well loved. “I have been pleasantly surprised by how few records come back to my desk with damage,” Hankel says. “There have only been a couple dozen since I started the collection. That leads me to believe that patrons are taking pretty good care of the vinyl.”

If you were to own the library’s vinyl collection, you’d be quite the hipster. 

Hankel tries to buy a mix of albums. New releases by Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa and Kacey Musgraves exist along with classic albums by The Clash, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Big Star, Sly Stone, Can and Townes Van Zandt.

“I try not to turn it into my own personal selection of favorites,” Hankel says. “We have to be good stewards of the public’s money. You really need to defend all of the choices we make.”

Jazz, blues, country and rap are represented with releases from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Nina Simone, Art Blakey, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Luke Combs, Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Nas and Lauryn Hill, and many more.

“I’m very susceptible to requests and suggestions,” he says. “If I’m at my favorite record store and people say ‘you should get this for the library,’ I think, ‘Yeah, I think I should.’”

One genre is noticeably absent. “I’ve avoided purchasing classical vinyl up to now because of the cost associated with some of those titles,” he says. “But very soon I’m going to be ordering a chunk of classical on vinyl to see how that circulates. I still buy plenty of classical music on CD.”

There are also more obscure holdings like female post-punk band LiLiPUT; compilations of Latin freestyle from the late ‘80s; a soul compilation from the Finnish label Timmion Records; titles from Cuca Records, an important Wisconsin label; and the outsider band The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World. “I want to buy things that aren’t super obvious. I want a good mix of titles that people might expect to find as well as quirky surprises,” he says. 

Despite the growing popularity of vinyl, Hankel doesn’t see the format ever overtaking the CD collection. 

“I think the demand may continue to decrease [for CDs] but it won’t go away. At some point, there will be a resurgence like we’ve seen with vinyl,” he says. “It’s a form of physical media that at some point people will always want to return to as they tire of having to go through apps and go online. 

“And there are a lot of people who grew up with CDs and the nostalgia factor is going to kick in for them at some point as well,” he adds. “Also, not everything will remain available on streaming platforms. So it will be nice to have a physical piece of music that we can rely on instead of having to rely on online access.”

Guy Hankel highlights five LPs from the collection

Kleenex/LiLiPUT, First Songs (Kill Rock Stars, 2016)

“Excellent compilation of this legendary Swiss post-punkish band’s output from the late ‘70s into the early ’80s. Listen to “Split” for a primary example of their smart abandon. One of the very best bands of their era.”

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Free For All (Blue Note, 1965)

“If you feel the need to happily batter your eardrums into submission, you could do far worse than to lower your stylus onto the title track of this acclaimed album. Great performances from all involved; borderline unbelievable work from Blakey and Wayne Shorter.”

Julie Byrne, The Greater Wings (Ghostly International, 2023)

“Haunting and powerful alt-folk, recorded before and after the death of longtime creative partner and album collaborator, Eric Littmann. Deservedly landed on many best-of lists for 2023.”

Lafayette Afro-Rock Band, Malik (Strut, 1974)

“Infectious, driving funk informed by African rhythms from New York expats who found a receptive home and audience in France in the 1970s. Inadvertently created a rich repository of breaks and samples for future artists.”

MC5, High Time (Atlantic, 1971)

“Slightly more experimental third and final album from these influential proto-punks, but still plenty of slashing and crashing guitars, and raw vocals from frontman Rob Tyner, who one writer aptly characterized as ‘part James Brown, part Mick Jagger, and part Tina Turner’.”

Top 10 circulating records (not in any order):


Rumours—Fleetwood Mac

Revolver—The Beatles

Jolene—Dolly Parton

When we all fall asleep, where do we go?—Billie Eilish

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—Lauryn Hill

OK Computer—Radiohead

Blue—Joni Mitchell

Greatest Hits—Queen

Dark Side Of The Moon—Pink Floyd

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