This summer, for the first time in three years, Duke librarian Jamie Keesecker started composing music again. The culprit? A rapping mouse.
When the Nashville Public Library released a video of a chain-wearing mouse puppet bobbing to a parody of “Ice Ice Baby” to explain their curbside book pickup, Keesecker’s colleagues wanted him to make something similar for their new contactless reserve system, called library takeout.
Keesecker went a step further than parody, and his video became a viral sensation.
Fuqua School of Business student Zoey Kang recalls opening the video from an email newsletter. Thirty seconds in, she rewound it and started over. She did that about 10 more times, sent it to her friends as mandatory listening and shared it on Instagram.
“Sometimes I wake up with the song stuck in my head. It’s genius,” Kang said.
The Prodigal Composer
Keesecker started making music as a teenager, when a friend handed him a floppy disk with music editing software.
And he kept writing music, for more than 17 years. He got a master’s in music composition from Duke in 2011 and a doctorate in 2016, but worried constantly about his career. He realized he would make a better hobbyist composer than professional.
Keesecker began work at the library, where his work felt refreshingly regular. He didn’t need to invent things from scratch.
As COVID-19 infections in North Carolina rose throughout the spring, Keesecker spent more time at home with his three-year-old daughter Naima. His partner Heidi Wait, an intensive care unit nurse, spent less.
While Wait worked overtime at Duke Regional Hospital under layers of personal protective equipment, Keesecker and Naima perched between the baby blue walls of their living room on two blue plastic kids’ chairs and worked their way through quarantine with a crayon box. Naima squiggled, flirted with pointillism and learned to draw faces. Keesecker drew a stick figure playing a red keytar, shelves of books and other animations to accompany his newest composition—the “Library Takeout” song.
Headphones in, he built sounds until they turned to gibberish. The headphones came off when Naima got bored or needed help adding a My Little Pony to her half-sleeve of temporary tattoos.
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For the library takeout video, Keesecker thought he would write something simple, synth-pop. But once the beat came together, he started adding layers and didn’t stop.
The song oscillates between two chords topped with sounds that sparkle while stick figures dance in a choppy animation style that reminds Keesecker of the Sesame Street he watched as a kid. It’s electrifying and funny.
Living on Keesecker’s laptop, the song grew to be so bombastic, he had to pare it back down to fit in instructions for takeout along the way.
“There can actually be freedom when you’re working on top of something so rigid,” Keesecker said.
Keesecker edited together the animations and the song and uploaded it on YouTube under the pseudonym MicrOpaqu3, just in case it got really big. He showed Naima, even though she’d seen it in parts for weeks as they drew together.
“Look, there’s all your work,” Naima said.
Causing a Ruckus
Duke librarian Andrea Loigman was on a multinational Zoom call collaborating on new library software when a chat from a librarian in Germany popped up: “I just saw your video. It’s so wonderful!” And then another, from a librarian in Denmark.
“I don't know how it's getting around. I don't know how they’re finding it … like I'm hearing from people in Europe about this,” Loigman said.
People wondered on Twitter about MicrOpaqu3’s identity. As the Library Takeout video amassed views—nearly 20,000 by early October—Keesecker stayed hidden. His pseudonym was a reference to tiny documents on cards called micro-opaques, read on a microfilm machine.
“This song slaps and I've never even been to North Carolina, let alone Duke,” one YouTube commentator wrote. Another called the video “the only good that’s come out of the pandemic.”
Duke students tried to find him. Sophomore Jake Heller wrote in a message to The Chronicle that he assumed the library had hired an independent contractor.
To Keesecker, the whole thing was a great prank.
“There’s something funny to me about being behind the scenes, causing a ruckus without ever being identified,” he said. Until an email newsletter to Duke faculty blew his cover, he intended to remain strictly anonymous.
Keesecker released the song on Spotify and Apple Music on popular demand, again under the MicrOpaqu3 pseudonym.
Big Library, Big Problems
For Loigman, having Library Takeout stuck in her head was a small problem. Her team, Access and Delivery Services, returned to campus in July, before other librarians like Keesecker.
Campus felt like a ghost town. Loigman had staff to protect, and her staff had books to wrangle.
At any given time, Duke University Libraries has between 30,000 and 70,000 books checked out, Loigman said. When the University barred students from returning to campus during spring break, those books stayed stranded around the world. Library staff sent shipping labels to try and get them back.
“It was insane,” Loigman said. “...Tens of thousands of books just showing up in boxes and in bins and in bags and in postal packages.”
Still, transporting more than 800 books from a faculty member’s apartment back to the library felt like a small question next to the big one—how do you safely run a library without a clue of how the coronavirus is transmitted on surfaces?
Duke’s libraries occupy around 600,000 square feet, or around 15 grocery stores worth of space, librarian Dave Hansen said. This complicates efforts to restrict access to or clean the space. Also, the library usually employs more than 250 students each year. This fall they have nowhere near that number.
“How do you organize a physical space completely differently than it was ever intended to be used—when you've got no money to spend to do it?” Loigman said.
The answer has come slowly, in pieces, and today it means limited study space available to students via reservations. It means that janitorial staff sanitize the space from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. It means all the chairs in the first floor of Perkins library are shoved to the side to make way for tables covered in paper bags of books waiting for takeout.
Hansen, who is a copyright lawyer as well as librarian, spends his time finding legal strategies to get textbook access to students in Durham and abroad. This includes students in China for whom some class books aren’t even on the market, or unavailable due to government restrictions.
“What we are doing about textbooks is every darn thing that we can within the law,” Loigman said.
What Loigman called a “staggering” level of collaboration among Duke staff to solve all these problems has made her feel better about Duke and as an employee. She’s worked at other libraries and said she’s never seen anything like this.
Keesecker goes into work in the Music Library a few days a week now, back in his office with colorful book-binding samples and book jackets taped to the walls. Naima attends outdoor preschool in a mask.
Keesecker spoke to a friend and fellow composer to express some of his doubts about continuing to compose.
“Does the world really need more music from an almost middle-aged white guy? Don’t we have a lot of this?” he said.
But the friend reminded him to not forget about the other side of things—making music for himself.
Other librarians have approached Keesecker with ideas for more music videos, but he believes in taking breaks between projects to grow as a person. He’s not pressed by the attention to write “Library Takeout 2.” The fans will have to wait.