The National Art Library moved to become part of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1851. Since then, a love-hate relationship has developed between the library and the museum, because the library's collections are taking up valuable gallery space, yet they are an integral part of the museum.
Our tour guide was part of the collection development department, but she informed us that staff members often move around between the departments, so she is also involved with access. The library consists of a Centre Room for registration and enquiries, a silent reading room, the marshalling areas, periodicals stacks, gallery, special collections materials, West Room, and staff room. I appreciated getting such a thorough tour, as it allowed us to see the library as a whole-- how the departments interoperate and how each section connects with the rest.
The Centre Room holds the registration desk, where patrons may also pick up and drop off books that have been requested. At the enquiries desk, a staff member is always available during business hours to take requests over the phone or in person. The Centre Room also has computers with access to the online catalog (which is indexed by artist and can be accessed from home) as well as some reference books that may be accessed directly by the visitors (organized by the Dewey Decimal system). To maintain security, the library requires that all visitors use clear bags for their belongings. That, however, is the only measure of detection they enforce.
In the marshalling areas, the behind-the-scenes activity is happening. There is a photocopier available for patrons, as long as they abide by copyright laws. Also, I learned of another option that surprised me: visitors are allowed to take digital photos of the materials they use in the library. Also in the marshalling areas, there are two teams of paper-keepers. When readers request books, they fill out a blue slip, which is sent through a system of chutes to the paper-keepers. They fetch the books and hold them in cubbies organized according to seat tags from the reading room. There are book lifts to transport materials back and forth between the stacks and the marshalling areas.
Next, we ventured up to the periodicals stacks, where 8,000 titles are held (2,500 current). Many of the titles are for Victorian journals, and there is a large international collection, as well. The library binds older journals for conservation purposes, which is actually included as part of the budget. In regard to the library's conservation practices, they only conserve books that will go on loan or on display. The rest are simply preserved, which means they prevent the books from becoming further damaged.
In the galleries, we saw the library's collection of theses from the Royal College of Art, a representation of the collaboration between the two institutions. The collection also holds everything published by the Victoria and Albert Press, in three copies (one for the general collection, one for the crypt/archive, and one for special collections). This area is tight for space, so the books are organized by size. The space issue also means that some items must wait to be catalogued, leading to a large backlog of incoming items. I am noticing that this is a common theme among all the libraries we have visited. It is dealt with in various ways, but it is never fully resolved-- it seems like limited space will always inevitably be a challenge that libraries must face.
Some examples of the special collections materials that our tour guide pointed out include exhibition catalogs (organized by country, city, gallery, and year, dating back to the 1700s); sales catalogs (for art auctions); and price catalogs (documenting "who bought what and for how much"). Apparently, the library also has a large collection of items that one would not immediately associate with art, such as children's books and Charles Dickens manuscripts. I found this most interesting... I'm learning that libraries have the surprising ability to draw connections between things in less obvious ways than you would normally expect. What a desirable skill! A nice feature in the special collections area was the findings list for staff members to consult when they don't know where an item is located.
In the West Room, the collection of fine bindings is displayed, and it is actually part of the curatorial department. The library includes this collection for the books as objects, not for their content. It was neat to see the staff room; it looked like a comfortable and stimulating work environment. Cataloguing, accession, and collection development are all taken care of in the staff room, which is where librarians are working when not at one of the counters (four at registration and one at enquiries, at all times).
My favorite part of the visit was seeing some examples of "book art," parts of the collection that represent how books can be made into pieces of art. One was called a tunnel book, which was actually a Victorian concept. Drawings in a Nutshell was a charming piece-- the front and back covers of the book were the two sides of an actual nutshell, which opened to reveal a tiny book with a small drawing of a nut on each page. There was a book for which the reader becomes the creator: different strings make shapes when "read" in a certain light, almost creating a photographic scene with the shadow of the strings on the page. Other books took the concept of "pop-up" and expanded into a whole technique of paper engineering. It was fascinating to see how artists have explored creatively with the "bookish" concepts of binding, text, and graphics, and how these concepts can interact to add complex levels of depth to the narrative.