Remembering B.B. King

By Perry G. RSS Wed, May 27, 2015

Philadelphia’s guitarists are dropping by the Reference Desk more frequently than usual to request our B.B. King songbooks. School students are visiting the Music Department asking for books for papers they're writing on B.B. King’s life.  Not to mention the folks who come in looking for our books about B.B, as well as his cds and records. The blues icon, who passed last week at 89, left behind a towering legacy, and Philly is still singing the blues.

Let’s take a look at what the Music Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia holds for our students, researchers, musicians, and listeners, relating to the blues legend, B.B. King.

Students and Scholars

We get a lot of students who come up to the reference desk saying something like, “I need books on B.B. King.”  Public reference librarians - though no substitute for public school librarians embedded in the schools curricula - decipher this by starting a reference interview - “Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’re looking for?” we ask.  This is hopefully when the student will tell us they’re working on a research paper their teacher has assigned them.  And this is where the reference hunt begins.


You probably already know that if you know nothing about a topic, an encyclopedia's a good warm-up.  Here in the Music Department, we keep several volumes of music-specific tomes behind the desk at the ready - hence the name Ready Reference.  This is our Swiss army kit.   If you’re looking to write a paper on B.B. King, or any other musician really, we’d always recommend:

The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians - Probably the first place to start your search on anything music related.

Contemporary Musicians - One of our favorites for those students who prefer magazine-style articles.

Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians - Includes an extensive recommended listening list.  One of our first places to check when patrons ask us for recommendation for book on an artist with whom we're unfamiliar.

Encyclopedia of the Blues - Subject-specific collection of information on the genre of the Blues.

If you’re browsing from home, you can still access some of our premium electronic resources from our Databases page using your library card and PIN .  Though some databases are so expensive you have to be in the library to use them, we always start with:

Biography in Context - Starting from our databases page, our Biography in Context provides a good overview, along with recommended readings and listening.  Like a good Wicked page, but you can count on the author being an expert.

Gale Virtual Reference Library - This unique resource culls from volumes of multi-topic encyclopedias to bring you results from across the whole spectrum of published scholarship.  Searching "B.B. King" gives you hits both in The African Encyclopedia and The Blues Encyclopedia, as well as results from film encyclopedias such as Videohound.

International Index to Music Periodicals - This is one of our most costly databases, and searches across a whole spectrum of music and musician periodicals for citations.  This is the way scholars do research: using what’s already been written to compose new work.    


Books to check out

If you’re looking for books about or featuring B.B. King, we have plenty.  Simply search our catalog.  And if you know a book (or cd, or dvd) you want that we don’t have, we can request it for you through Interlibrary Loan.  What’s Interlibrary Loan? Well, you probably know that libraries in Philadelphia share resources and books with each other, but what you may not know is that libraries all over the world share with each other in one communal pool of knowledge.  You can request a book through the Interlibrary Loan section of our web site.

Reference Books

We also have a Reference collection of books on B.B. King.  These are books librarians have selected over the years which are always available for you to use at Parkway Central. Ask a librarian for recommendations!

Vertical File -- clippings

One of our favorite things to do when someone comes in wanting to do research is direct them to the clippings file.  These are newspapers clipped and curated through the years, and they give you a good starting point for composing new work.


The Music Department holds a wide variety of subscription periodicals across the whole spectrum of music.  Of particular interest to those writing about B.B. King are genre-specific magazines such as Blues Revue and Living Blues, as well as magazines for guitarists such as Guitar, Guitar Player, and Soundboard.


Philadelphians of all stripes visit the library to listen to recordings from our collection.  The Music Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia holds a robust collection of recorded music, both in our vinyl collection, our circulating compact disc collection, and the seven premium streaming music services to which we subscribe. Some other ways you can listen to music through the Free Library:

Vinyl - The Music Department’s robust vinyl collection features two special treasures within our main collection (the Harvey Huston Jazz Library and the Hubert Library of Sound).  These are relics from the 1950s and 1960s, and the best way to browse is still using a hands on approach - using our card catalog.

Reference Collection - Rare, out-of-print, or heavily used CDs we keep in our reference collection in the Music Department at Parkway Central.

Databases - Our American Song databases holds high-quality streams of B.B.'s albums, much better than what you can find online.  They often contain scanned liner notes too - music librarians will tell you that if you’re doing music research, and you’re really trying to turn over every source, liner notes can be an invaluable tool.


If you’re a guitarist, we hope you already know about the collection of reliable guitar method books, volumes of tablature, songbooks, guitar galleries, and play like the pros or in the style of songbooks that the Free Library makes available to you for no money.  When a musician comes in wanting to learn more about guitar, we’ll usually take them upstairs to the guitar songbooks, and then to the books about guitars, and then over to the Methods.  

Songbooks and Sheet Music - B.B. King inspired so many artists over the course of his life and continues doing so .  Master guitarists visit us looking for blues scale books and blues improvisations.  Newbies visit us too, taking out TAB songbooks and individual style songbooks.  If you come into the Music Department, you can also see our sheet music collection, with single sheets dating back to the Philadelphia Centennial.

Books about Guitars and Players - Sometimes you just want to gaze at pictures of guitars you can never afford.  We hold books like these too, where you can see B.B. King’s Lucille as well as galleries of Gibsons, Rickenbackers, and more.

However you want to remember B.B. King, we make these treasures available to you, and to all Philadelphians, for free.  We’re public librarians in a public library: we're here to serve the community, and our listeners, readers, students and scholars from Philadelphia and around the world..

R.I.P. B.B.

[The Free Library Blog only allows one author to be listed, but Peter SM generously contributed content to this as well - Editors]

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