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Downtime: Digital librarian plays mountain dulcimer (video)

December 9, 2012

Digital resources librarian Josh Hickman was searching for a new hobby when he came across the mountain dulcimer—an American folk instrument originating in Appalachia. Not to be confused with the hammered dulcimer, the mountain dulcimer is a member of the zither family of instruments and is typically played on the lap while strumming with the right hand and fretting with the left (other names for the instrument include lap dulcimer and Appalachian dulcimer).

Josh did some research on the instrument and found a luthier (a person who specializes in making lutes and other string instruments) in Missouri who sells and ships affordable student models. He has been playing on his teardrop shaped student model since August.

Click here to see him demonstrate his dulcimer skills.

Josh chose the instrument because he loves the sound of the autoharp and was looking for a string instrument with a similar sound.

“I wanted to find an instrument I could teach myself,” he says of his newfound hobby. “The dulcimer is perfect for just picking up and playing because that’s what it’s made for. When I first started I couldn’t even strum, but I think I’ve made some progress.”

The progress is evident when we go to the library lounge and, sitting on a sofa in a pool of mid-afternoon light, Josh plays a lovely rendition of the Southern Gospel song Farther Along. The instrument has a beautiful, unusual sound that fills the basement lounge. Josh points out that his relatives were moonshiners in the same region of Appalachia where the mountain dulcimer was first made popular, indicating that perhaps his taste for American folk instruments is inherited.

Much to his surprise Josh has found a community of people who play mountain and hammered dulcimer in southern Wisconsin. “What I thought about not being able to find anyone who plays around here was completely wrong,” Josh admits. Soon he will be starting lessons and at some point he hopes to join the Southern Wisconsin Dulcimer Club.

When he’s not rocking out on the dulcimer, Josh can usually be found either in his office in the library, at the reference desk, or teaching a class how to use the library’s electronic resources. His current big project is to digitize archived copies of the alumni magazine going back as far as the 1910s.