Tuesday, 31 July 2007

National Art Library at the V&A

Today's site visit was to the National Art Library, which is housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The library's enquiry desk is currently reached by passing through the silent reading room, a circumstance which the library hopes to remedy in the future. The plans include moving the entrance to the opposite end of the suite, making the silent reading room the furthest space from the entrance. I hope the library is able to move forward with these plans, as it would result in a much quieter environment for readers and researchers. Our guides through the library itself and through its collections were two of the librarians, Jen and Jenny. They were kind enough to give us enough time to both see a great deal of the library's working space and stacks, as well as an introduction to the collection and access to some examples of fine bindings and artists' books held by the National Art Library.

Unlike the British Library, the National Art Library is not restricted to collecting only British publications, and as a result covers some areas missed in the British Library's collections. The National Art Library is therefore a very important resource for researchers interested in art in all its various forms. The library holds approximately 8,000 periodicals, 2,500 of which are current, and a large collection of exhibition and sales catalogs. The sales catalogs, collected from various auction houses, are invaluable resources for determining the provenance of a work of art, and the annotated catalogs can be even more useful as they provide information about the paintings' past market value. In addition, the library attempts to collect three copies of each item published by the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of which is kept pristine for archive purposes only. The collection dates back, in some cases, to the 1700's, and the library is continuously working on collection development and acquisition. Space has been a severe limiter to acquisition, and we were shown the cataloging backlog for the library, which extended along the whole of the communal office space's wall. Apparently, the uncataloged items are still available for use by the public, although their uncataloged status can only be an irritation for the librarians. There is a hope for some off-site, underground storage in Salisbury, which would help alleviate some of the problems related to space.

After our tour of the library's working spaces, we were shown some of the library's special collections. These included examples of fine binding and several artists' books. These items, as opposed to being books of artwork or books about art, are examples of art in and of themselves. The library is as devoted to collecting narrative works made as art as they are to collecting informative works about the subject. The artists' books included many surprising and unusual pieces, including the binding from some Islamic books which had been separated from the book's contents. Sadly, the books had originally been purchased for the binding alone, and the books themselves had not been seen as valuable. As a result, it is only the binding that remains. The rest of the items were more fortunate, however, and remain whole. We were privileged to see an example of a tunneling book, which opens into a tunnel framing the text. Another personal favorite was the English teacher's diary. It is a daily calendar from 1997, and is full of personal notes, drawings, and doodles. I really enjoyed the idea that a woman, focused on teaching English in Japan, could have unknowingly created a work of art so interesting that it was purchased by the National Art Library. It's kind of inspiring, really.

Another interesting aspect of the items brought out for us was the preservation angle. We were told that items were more often preserved than conserved. The only conservation done in the library is for items that are scheduled for display or loan to another institution, and this process is carried out by a specialized group of conservators. The rest of the items have to make do with preservation, in the interests that the book's condition doesn't worsen. Books in need of preservation are often placed into specially-made containers of archival-grade material, which is wrapped or tied to ensure that it keeps its shape without causing additional damage to the item. Sadly, the lack of space in the library is having its effect on preserved items as well. Many items which should be stored flat are being stored on end due to a lack of space, which may be solved by the proposed off-site storage. I was very grateful to have been given such an in-depth look into the daily workings and the collections of this fine library. The librarians were very knowledgeable and welcoming, and I feel that I've gained a greater understanding of how a specialized library operates.