Wednesday, July 22, 2009

National Art Library at Victoria and Albert Museum: "The object of art is to give life a shape"

The Victoria and Albert Museum is by far the quirkiest, most entertaining museum I've been to so far in London, so it wasn't a shock that I found the National Art Library housed within to be quite impressive. The main room itself is very aesthetically pleasing; there are high ceilings, floods of natural light, and clear windows overlooking a lovely courtyard with a fountain. The walls of the reading rooms are lined with rows of books with perfect spines. The atmosphere is very soothing.

The library was founded in 1837, even though the V & A museum was founded in 1852. They were separate entities, and the National Art Library began as the Art and Design academic library at Somerset House. However, the library and museum joined in 1857, and the library receives its funding from the museum's budget.

Jennifer Reeves, my group's tour guide, was very incredibly informative and helpful. She gave us a tour of the entire library, including the stacks and staff offices. Upon first glance, the library looks a lot smaller than it actually is; the part the public sees consists of two reading rooms, aptly named the silent room, and the centre room, respectively. The centre room has computers for readers to use. There is an invigilation desk at which to request special collections material; the rest of the material can be requested in the centre room. Like many of the libraries we've visited thus far, the library is a reference, non-lending institution, so readers must search the catalogue and fill out a slip about the items they wish to view; the librarians have a system in place to organize the requests and fetch the items.

The library has a very large collection, and Jennifer mentioned having space issues, in spite of the many huge stack rooms we were allowed to view. The collection itself has a broad, yet still narrow focus: the subject is art, in any form, from many different countries and time periods. The National Art Library website gives a comprehensive overview of the collection: "[materials] 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." They estimate their overall collection to be over 2 million items (which grows day by day); their periodical collection alone consists of 8,000 individual titles, 2,000 of which are current! They do not weed their collection, except for out-of-date reference materials. Furthermore, the library subscribes to several art databases, a few of which can only be accessed on site, but anyone can become a reader, and it is free. Because space is such an issue in the library, only their reference books are classified in Dewey - the books in the stacks are actually classified by size (which I've actually never seen before, but I understand why it is necessary!).

Learning about the library and seeing the wealth of material in the collections was wonderful, but some of my happiest geeky moments from the entire trip so far occurred when Bernadette Archer (and Francis Warrell, who chose the material) allowed us to view and touch some of their rare, special collections material. Ms. Archer first gave us the history of the materials, and then we were free to peruse it ourselves. She explained that many of their rare books consist of books that are art in and of themselves, where the content did not necessarily matter to them. However, they also had some rare gems from famous Brits.The highlights of these books, for me personally:
--a 1623 first folio of Shakespeare (that I touched!)
--a Keats poem written in his own hand (that I touched!)
--a Dickens manuscript that he made marks and comments on (that I touched!)I also enjoyed the books where artists toyed with the expectations of a book as physical object, thus making the book itself an art piece. I didn't get the artist's name, but I loved the piece that looked like a book on the outside, but inside was a piece of plastic which made the book "sigh" as you closed it.The National Art Library is amazing, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to receive the tour and to view and touch the rare books (which I suspect very few people will be able to do in the future). There are so many treasures in libraries and museums worldwide that I had absolutely no knowledge of, and every day here my eyes are opened to something spectacular.

No comments:

Post a Comment