Festival All-Star: Burning Man's Rock Star Librarian

Article by: Emily Ward|@_drawylime

Tue August 22, 2017 | 19:30 PM

Chaos is a Burning Man specialty, but don't be fooled. TTITD kind of  hums like a well-oiled machine. Beneath that wild, dusty exterior, thousands of volunteers are planning, building and spreadsheeting 365 days a year. 

One such volunteer, after one too many nights on the playa spent aimlessly walking, freezing, and not dancing in search of the next epic Burning Man musical experience, took it upon herself to compile a musical schedule for her and her campmates to enjoy.  Now, eleven years later, word of her project has spread so much that she has over 12,000 fans on Facebook and servers crash the day the guide is released due to overwhelming demand for her creation.

This volunteer? She's Kate Houston, aka The Rock Star Librarian.

Beloved by the community for her dedication to such a time-consuming project, her initial Kickstarter campaign launched to pay production costs surpassed its $5,000 goal, and what started as a "one page Word document" has morphed into a dense guide covering a wide expanse of camps, art cars, and city blocks.

Download the 2017 guide HERE and read on for Kate's cool backstory (she really is a librarian), how long putting the guide together really takes, and her favorite Burning Man moments.

First things first: Anything you need from the community? From us?

Thank you for asking! Please share this reminder: this is a guide, not a bible. Embrace the joy of anticipation this musical travel guide evokes while being present in the immediacy of unexpected beats, unimaginable interactions and unbelievable people.

How did you get started creating this guide?

First, I am an actual librarian. Have been for the past 20 years. So, connecting information with people is second nature to me. I first began to curate a music guide for Burning Man in the mid-2000s for my friends and campmates. After a year of walking across the open playa from the three to nine o'clock side in near freezing temperatures and blinding dust storms (bikes weren't ubiquitous yet), we simply wanted to spend more time dancing and less time freezing.

Rsl 2015 Cover Art

The Music Guide's 2015 cover art. Graffiti art photo credit: Geoffrey Squier Silver

How do you source your info? From sound camps? Your own sleuthing?

I work and always have worked directly with Burners. I have spent the past ten years building a rapport with the various sound camp coordinators. I reconnect with them each year and request contact information for this year's music lead for their camp. I used to sleuth more, but now I post to theme camp [lists] and organizer lists to invite camps to submit their music schedules.

How many hours does it take? Do you do it all alone?

The first year it started out with a one page spreadsheet. From there it grew because more sound camps were built. I used to manually enter all the lineups into a Word document, but now I have a database in which camps can register, submit their schedules and edit them until deadline passes. Amazing playa serendipity connected me to two Burners, Terry "Wizard" Grossman and Christopher "Xtopher" Cilley, who said they could help me build a database to create better data integrity. This made me super geeky happy and came along at just the right time. They created the Time to Burn app that lists the playa events and includes my music guide details to help Burners going home navigate the many ways they can participate on playa. I know not everyone philosophically agrees with the app or my music guide. That's OK by me. Both are simply gifts, and not every gift is for everyone.

I review the data myself and make alterations as necessary. This schedule isn't a simple hourly list. And now that art cars are mobile stages and traditionally stationary sound camps are going mobile with nightly "take-overs," it can be quite messy. But the librarian in me loves figuring it out. I've tried to explain to someone else all the intricate anomalies that exist in building this guide, but it's hard to comprehensively impart a decade's knowledge. I don't have an actual guess at the number of hours it takes to curate the guide. It's probably best that I don't know.

What are some of your most memorable musical Burning Man moments?

My greatest memories are of simple playa moments. In 2001 I was dancing at the Nine o'clock corner at Illuminaughty camp to an unnamed DJ in a complete white out where I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. The storm lasted for four hours. I had hoped I would have found my friend Adam from San Francisco before leaving camp as we had planned to dance all night together. When the dust finally settled in the wee hours of the morning, standing right next to me was Adam. I asked him how long he'd been there. He hugged me and said "All night." So, we did end up spending the night out together just not in the way we expected. And that's Burning Man. Delight beyond expectations.

Burn 2008, Root Society Thursday, 6 pm-2 am, was the first time I heard Fort Knox Five, who played right before Bassnectar. Right in the middle of FK5's funk set, I suddenly heard Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" mixed in seamlessly, and it was beautiful. I laughed til my cheeks hurt and appreciated the reminder to have fun and be silly. I'm heartbroken at the recent loss of Jon Horvath of Fort Knox Five. He was an original. Authentic to the core, funny as hell, and an all around great human being.

Keep up with The Rock Star Librarian's work on her website. Download her guide here.