Visit to the National Art Library

Although I am undertaking my traineeship at the Law Bod and am hugely enjoying it, my background is actually in Art History and, at the end of last term, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the National Art Library for a private tour and a chance to learn more about the profession of art librarianship.

The library is housed in the wonderful Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington and, having arrived in London a little early on a particularly chilly December morning, I wasted no time in scurrying into this magical place for a quick look around. Established in the 19th century, the collection – which spans over two thousand years and four different continents – is a treasure trove of inspiration and creativity: from fashion and textiles to glass and metalwork; prints, paintings, and photography to sculpture, ceramics, and furniture.

The V&A’s John Madjeski Garden – image courtesy of Edward Hill Photography, via the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

It’s an easy place in which to lose both yourself and your bearings – and I must admit that, in my search for the library entrance, I did spend quite a while wandering around the ironwork galleries in circles and puzzling over floorplans before realising that I was looking for stairs that didn’t actually exist. But I got there in the end, to be greeted by Assistant Librarian Sally Williams and a truly beautiful reading room.

Sally explained that the NAL is a public library that anyone can register to use by applying for a reader’s ticket. This is a straightforward process without the need for formal letters of recommendation or academic credentials (although certain items are restricted), meaning that the library has a reputation for being more friendly and approachable than others of its kind. The library’s welcoming attitude also attracts a wide variety of readers – from curators and academics, to arts professionals and collectors, to students and interested members of the general public.

Like the Law Library here at Oxford, the NAL is reference only – meaning that no books are permitted to leave the reading rooms. Most of the material is stored in closed stacks rather than on open display, and readers are required to order items for consultation either in advance of their visit using the online library catalogue, or on the day by filling out a paper request slip. With the exceptions of the Linder Bequest, Linder Archive and Linder Collection (three groups of material by and relating to Beatrix Potter), the Renier Collection of Children’s Literature, and a large number of other children’s books (all of which are kept in the Victoria & Albert Museum Archives at Blythe House in West London), everything is stored within the library itself and the staff carry out book collections every hour to retrieve requested items. Sally stressed that it can take up to 40 minutes to locate and deliver an item to a reader, so I think she felt a bit better when I told her it can take an entire day here!

The library’s holdings, which consist of over 1 million items, are split into two categories: the General Collection and Special Collections. The first of these spans a variety of formats – such as books, journals, magazines and electronic resources – and includes all key artistic areas covered by the V&A, as well as a broader range of Humanities-based material such as literary and historical works. Two particularly useful features for researchers are the large collections of auction and exhibition catalogues, which can help to provide vital background information regarding the provenance and historical context of specific items. Because the library’s acquisitions remit is so broad, it also holds a number of surprising things: for example, hundreds of back-editions of Vogue (useful for fashion students) and a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.  The Special Collections continue this broad coverage, and mostly contain items that require extra care for conservation reasons – such as manuscripts or elaborately bound books. For more information about the library’s collections, click here.

The National Art Library's main reading room - image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum website.
The National Art Library’s main reading room – image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

Making up one aspect of the V&A’s Word and Image Department (the largest section in the museum), the NAL also functions as the curatorial division for the art of the book. As such, its staff structure – made up of around 40 people – is split into two areas: Collections and Information Services. While the Collections team are concerned primarily with the display and conservation of the physical items themselves, the Information Services team are focused more on front-of-house matters such as reader enquiries and the library’s online presence.

Sally is based in the Information Services department, and a large part of her role includes giving tours and inductions like the one she was kind enough to give me. As part of my session Sally introduced me to Librarian Bernadette Archer, who is also part of the Information Services team and is responsible for tasks including the maintenance of the library’s website and intranet, alongside more specialised projects such as the digitisation of artists’ books. Talking to both Sally and Bernadette was extremely interesting, as my conversations with them highlighted two different views on the best route into art librarianship:

Sally originally trained in textile practice, before going on to work in a museum and obtaining an NVQ in curating. In exactly the same way I’ve done, she then decided to move from the museum sector to the library profession, which is how she came to her position at the NAL and is now being sponsored through an NVQ in Information Studies. Although Sally was quick to admit that hers has been a rather unconventional journey, she was very encouraging of the idea that it’s possible to get into art librarianship at a junior level before undertaking a postgraduate qualification.

Bernadette, however, took the more traditional route of gaining a Masters in librarianship prior to employment in the field and advised that, in her experience, art libraries value a postgraduate qualification from an accredited library school more highly than a background in the arts. I was hugely surprised to learn that, as far as Bernadette knew, none of the staff members at the NAL are trained in Art History!

So, all in all, I came away with a lot of positive guidance to consider. I have since joined the UK branch of the Art Libraries Society (ARLIS UK) in order to further my knowledge and current awareness of the field, as well as to receive information on job vacancies and events. I have also been researching City University’s MA in Information Studies in the Cultural Sector, which looks incredibly interesting and is definitely something I would like to consider in the future.*

Many thanks to Emma Sullivan and Tamsyn Prior from the Bodleian Staff Development team for helping me to arrange this visit, and to Sally Williams and Bernadette Archer at the NAL for sparing the time to tell me a bit about what they do.

*Edit 01/04/2014: Since writing this post I have been informed by City University that, unfortunately, the MA in Information Studies in the Cultural Sector is being discontinued.