Wednesday, July 20, 2011

National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum

The National Art Library was established in 1837 and was part of the School of Design. Since that time it has been moved to different locations in London from its original site at Marlborough House, next to Somerset House, and then in 1850 to its current location. It is a non-lending library so all research needs to be done in house. The reference room materials are open access otherwise the stacks are closed and materials must be requested with the limit of six items per request, unless they’re from special collections in which case the limit is three items. In the periodical room there are 8,000 titles including 2,000 current titles. This collection is related to the museum collection of Arts & Crafts, for example the library holds 99.9% of all Vogue magazines ever published in both English and French. They are bound for security and preservation. The collection also includes trade and exhibition catalogs dating from the 18th century to the present.

The books are classified and ordered by size. It is a historic collection therefore there isn’t a logical classification system. In order to find items the librarians use a locator map, pressmarks on the books and a findings list. The annual acquisition budget is about $300,000.

My favorite part of the tour was when we were led into a room with items from the collection on display. The librarian, Sally Williams, explained the background information about the items she’d pulled for discussion and our perusal. The collection includes a 1908 illustrated fashion design book by the then famous designer Paul Poiret. The illustrations were made with stencils and then colored in. Next there was an art book that had rabbit pelt pages. The oldest item on display was an illuminated manuscript from Paris dated 1410. There was the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield that had been donated by John Forster in 1876. The library also holds a copy of John Audobon’s 450 prints bound in a book. There was a preserved copy of Ross & Sons Great Exhibition Almanac of 1851. It was so exciting to be able to handle and go through these materials.

Due to the lack of funding very few items in the library’s collection are digitized. However, there are a select few items available on the database Empire online.

Most of the users of this library are university students, post-graduates, people related to auction houses, and curators at the museum. The users have free access to the database including JSTOR. There are also student theses available from the library by date.

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