First Tim and I hopped on the tube to South Kensington to visit the National Art Library, located inside the Victoria and Albert Museum.
After a brief unplanned detour through the sculpture gallery…
“Tim I thought the email said take a left at the bust of Charles I”
“No, no, no Miriam I’m sure it was a right at Charles I and then a left at the 19th century cast of Michelangelo’s David”
…we were met by Sally, Assistant Librarian and Group Visits co-ordinator.
Sally began by telling us a little about the range and scope of the NAL as one of the largest arts libraries in the world, in the same league as those in the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As she lead us through the 2 reading rooms Sally also told us a little about the inception of the NAL. It was originally opened as the library for the Government School of Design at Somerset House and the collections were strictly practical and designed to support students studying the technicalities of design. The library then moved to new premises at Marlborough House and later, as the library and the museum surrounding it continued grow, moved to its current home in South Kensington.
Here Sally also highlighted that the library holdings are now not only designed to complement the V&A’s collections but also to document the decorative and fine arts much more broadly. As the tour progressed the sheer variety of the collection became clear and over the course of the afternoon Sally mentioned items ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch books to the full run of Vogue to a collection of Argos catalogues.
The varied nature of the V&A collections also means that it welcomes a wide variety of
visitors with a range of needs and interests. In addition to supporting V&A staff, the library is also the UK’s leading public art and design library and welcomes over 30,000 visitors a year. Anyone can apply to use the V&A collections but all books, apart from the reference collection, must be requested online prior to a visit.
Sally then led us behind the library enquiry desk and into the library stores where the vast majority of the collections are held. The NAL shelves books by size, using its own classification system in order to make best use of the space available and this means that, apart from the collection of children’s books, the whole collection can be stored onsite. Whilst most books are kept on shelves throughout the store there are also safes that house the rarest and precious items including a Shakespeare First Folio and the manuscripts of Charles Dickens’ novels.
The NAL also holds a vast collection of periodicals, holding over 11,000 titles and processing 50-100 new issues a week. When we visited they were mid-way through a major refurbishment of the library offices and Sally showed us the brand new processing desk where all the new issues are unpacked and processed ready for shelving. Older issues of the journals have been bound into large volumes but this has recently been stopped as it is both costly and makes it more difficult to use the issues for display as part of exhibitions.
In addition to holding books and periodicals about art and design the collection is also interested in books and periodicals as works of art themselves. When we visited the librarians had laid out some of these items for a visiting group of MA Photography students who were interested in artists who use the physical form of a book as part of their work.
I found this aspect of the NAL’s collection particularly interesting as this is not something that I have encountered in the libraries that I have worked at in the past. Whilst at the RCN we use books as part of our exhibitions, and have recently installed a new case in order to display our rare books, these items were predominantly not designed for this purpose but rather to educate or entertain the reader. Whilst many of them are aesthetically pleasing or designed with great care we place them in a gallery/museum setting because of their social and historical significance and what they can tell us about the time in which they were created and the people who wrote and read them. Whereas these items have gained a new life as artefacts much of the NAL’s collection was created to be displayed and understood in such contexts.
The event that I attended placed a spotlight on artist’s sketchbooks and displayed the sketchbooks themselves alongside both a laptop displaying the digitized sketchbooks and an activity that invited attendees to use the methods and techniques employed by the artist to create their own sketches.
Using all of my creative energy, and the skills I honed in primary school art, I attempted to emulate the work of Graham Sutherland. Here the activity instructed us to draw an cone, then draw an oval, then link them with another geometric shape and then make the resulting ‘creation’ into either an animal or landscape.
Behold my masterpiece…
This event, and my visit to the National Art Library, really highlighted to me the importance of audience engagement for any library and archive as both these institutions actively seek not only to preserve the work of past artists but also to actively engage with those creating and working today.