Tuesday, July 13, 2010
National Art Library at Victoria and Albert
After our day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, we spent a day in London. Our site visit for Thursday, July 15, was the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum . Slated to start at either 2 or 3 pm, I decided to take the morning and run some errands before our tour of the library. I popped into Primark to find a pair of L2 walking shoes (which feel like they cost 2 pounds--my feet have much more expensive taste) and bought a few t-shirts since mine have suffered from travel--one stain, one rip). I was starting to feel incredibly aggravated with the number of people on Oxford Street so I caught the bus to the V&A arriving a few minutes after 2pm.
Having arrived late, I must admit that it was difficult to find the LIS group--the information desk at the V&A had no information and I hadn't yet put numbers in my phone. Luckily I spotted Courtney who told me where (through the gallery and up the stairs) and when (2:55) to meet the group for the 3pm tour. I then decided to wander the Museum a bit--looking at the British Galleries. While the displays were impressive and I appreciated the chance to experiment with the collections--try on a ruff, build a chair, create my own coat of arms, the V&A reminded me of the Field Museum in Chicago. Both museums have excellent collections but their organization seems less than logical--I could not find my way between galleries, I felt like I was being herded rather than having a choice of where to go. I remember getting lost at the Field Museum--I kept ending up at the man-eating lions: at the V&A I had that same feeling of disorientation--I could not appreciate the collection because the space felt like something out of Alice's nightmares in Wonderland.
At a few minutes before 2pm I ran into Jenn who suggested I leave my bag with the coat check. After doing so, we walked up the stairs the National Art Library. The reading rooms of the National Art Library are beautiful--hard wood, large reading desks, natural light with one room for silent study and a second room where the librarians have their circulation and inquiry desk. The National Art Library (NAL) is a closed access library--the staff retrieves all materials and oversees how they are used and reproduced. Despite these restrictions the library is open to all members of the public who obtain a reader card and are interested in the arts in general or the V&A Museum's collections in particular. According to a pdf on the NAL website, "Subjects covered include those central to the work of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and its collections, including: prints, drawings and paintings; furniture and woodwork; textiles, dress and fashion; ceramics and glass; metalwork; sculpture; art and design of the Far East, India and South East Asia; history of the art, craft and design of the book. The Library is also an excellent source for information about artists."
The library was established when the Museum opened in South Kensington in 1857 though the first designation as "library" with the two reading rooms was not until 1884. They have about thirty staff members and a budget of approximately $150,000 of which half goes to the purchase of periodicals and journals.
Our tour was divided into two stages--the library in general and then the special collections. The general tour provided behind-the-scenes access to the NAL's stacks, staff areas, and information about the cataloguing system and conservation services. In many ways, the NAL seems to operate independently of the V&A--all conservation work is done in-house (within the library) and they are mindful of the demands on V&A conservation staff so at present only the worst cases from the library are sent for extensive conservation. The librarian indicated that in battles with the museum for space, the library inevitably loses--shelves were removed to make way for the 20th century collection leaving books on open shelves that had to be protected with bars from the hands of curious museum visitors.
This provides an interesting opportunity for books to be seen as works of art--though they do not seem to be as appreciated as the pieces in the V&A collections.
This trip has really awakened in me an interest in archival standards and cataloguing. First of all, their catalogue is entirely online--they have no card catalogue and expect researchers to use the computers provided to locate desired materials. The National Art Library, like many other libraries we have seen with older, diverse collections, catalogs by size. Press marks (shelf marks) refer to size and there are findings lists that provide information about where runs of books are located. The "shelf-by-size" system leads to some interesting opportunities for browsing (by staff since shelves are closed to users) meaning that a book on African art can be shelved next a work on Greek columns. The picture below shows some of the interesting "shelf-fellows" that result.
At the same time, since this is a closed stack system and there is no "browsing" capability, the system is kindest to the books and provides the most efficient mode of storage in a library with space constraints. It was mentioned that it generally takes new staff about a year to know the library, including all the niches and locations where books might be stored. There is a backlog of cataloguing due to limited shelf space. At the same time, the library has some impressive special collections--Foster Codicies (Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks), a Shakespeare First Folio, and Charles Dickens' manuscripts along with the general collection of books and over 2500 active and defunct art journals.
On a final note, while the special collections were beautiful, what caught my attention was a full run of Dickens' Bleak House
in the original pamphlet form--a resource that could give the reader a closer-to-the-original experience of those who first read the novel in the nineteenth century, and, in many ways, a critical source in the history of the book and publication.