Monday, July 25, 2011

Victoria and Albert Museum: National Art Library

Entrance to the V&A
The National Art Library was founded in 1837, and even though it is currently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum it's existence predates the Museum.  Our tour was led by Alicia, one of the assistant librarians.  Originally the library was part of the School of Design, and came from rather modest and small beginnings.  Some professors decided to join together to purchase some craft books.  Through the early years the collection grew and in the 1850’s it moved to the V&A.  It is a reference library, no lending of items is allowed.  The library is also the curator for the History of the Book project.  Among its prized items the library holds a copy of a Dickens’ manuscript and a 15th C Illuminated Book of Hours.  

Reading Room
Readers can register for a reading card either in person or online.  Typical users include post-graduate students, auctioneers, curators, and artists.  In the two reading rooms the first floor books are open stacks, containing mostly reference and general works.  Users may request items electronically or from the on-site electronic catalogs.  Each patron can request up to 6 books at a time, or 3 items from special collections.  Four members of staff work directly with the public, but another 40-50 people are at work behind the scenes.  They have a rotating schedule so that the shifts for reference, information and retrieval are kept relatively short.

The library collection is very international, and multi-lingual.  The majority of the items are in Western European languages.  It is the largest art library in Europe besides Paris.  The titles cover anything and everything related to arts and crafts.  It houses trade catalogues and auctions from the late 18th C.  The collection includes 8,000 periodical titles, of which 2,000 are currently being published.

Most of the collections are classified by size, some by subject.  The library has extensive finding lists, press marks, and maps in order to locate items in the collection.  The acquisitions department has a relatively large budget, but they also receive substantial additions to their collections through donations and bequests.  Several of the largest donated collections include the Foster and Cements collections.  They have their own shelf marks and are kept separate from the main collections, simply to make it easier to find and retrieve items. 
Library Stacks, with a museum exhibit
I enjoyed the visit to the National Art Library, even though it was kind of short.  I enjoyed seeing some of the rare items from the collection, and learning about how they are stored and preserved.  The library had an open and welcoming feel about it, and there were several patrons making use of the collection.  The library has an extensive collection, covering all sorts of art topics.  The general organization and layout seemed a bit confusing, but the employees we met with said that the detailed maps and finding lists made retrieving items much easier. 

Here’s the link to the library website:

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