The National Art Museum (NAL) makes its home in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in a beautifully decorated and multi-roomed space. We were split into two groups and given tours by Sally and Aisha, two library staff members. I was in the group who visited Sally first and viewed some treasures of the library. She had several amazing items from the collections on display for us, and discussed some of the history, provenance, and importance of the materials as we were invited to view them.
Among many others, we were shown Cipriano Piccolpasso’s treatise on the production of pottery (including recipes for glazes and pigments); the first book in any language on the tailoring of men’s and women’s clothing (written in 1589); and a late 1500s Dutch fine binding of a New Testament bible (with its page edges painted with biblical scenes). One of my favorite items was a first-hand account of what two sisters wore in France (and possibly Belgium) during the years 1892-98. The handwritten descriptions discussed what materials were used and what types of finishes and tailoring were popular, as well as incorporated 90 hand-colored illustrations.
The National Art Library has a very rich collection — over 1 million items — on a variety of subjects. For example, the NAL has one of the largest collections of artists’ books in the UK, various seminal photography books from the 20th century, and other trade literature that documents changes in design and society. Recently the library has started to contribute to the collections on the Internet Archive, with an aim to increase the digitization of their materials. The aim, Sally said, is to make art the art and design library more visual and accessible for users. Before we left to visit the Reading Room with Aisha, I glanced through their internal documents regarding guidelines for gently handling materials, which included directions to help a book “not remember what page it was on”.
Aisha gave us a wonderful tour of the rest of the library space. She explained that the NAL is considered to be part of the top four art museum/library resources in the world (including the Getty, the Met, and an art museum in Paris that does not need naming…). Contrary to what many people may think, the NAL has many kinds of documentary material related to fine and decorative art. It is not as simple as just painted portraits; for example, she discussed how the library supports all kinds of art as applied to objects, functional or otherwise (e.g., furniture, textiles, etc.). In this way, the NAL is considered to be a “public reference library” — all you need to do to use the library is show proof of ID and address, no fees required. The 30,000 visitors who use the library every year are drawn from a wide-range of demographics. The NAL is also a research facility for V&A staff, who use it support exhibitions and objects as many galleries have subject collections. Interestingly, she noted that it is also a curatorial department for “the art of the book”, the book as an art object on its own right. Materials that support this subject are part of the collections as well.
Aisha briefly gave us an overview on the history of the NAL. In 1837, a library collection was started at Somerset House to support the Government School of Design, a training school for students learning the basics of design. The library was essentially made up of teaching and learning materials for the school. By 1852, the beginnings of the museum were established at Marlborough House, one year after the Grand Exhibition at Crystal Palace (which helped to establish not only the V&A but also other South Kensington museums). The proceeds from the exhibition helped to fund the beginnings of the museum. By 1884, the library opened its purpose-built rooms (designed to be lit by electricity!) and in 1899, the museum was renamed the V&A.
By this time, the library’s collections and general “tone” had changed significantly. Ralph Wornum, a librarian during the 1850s, increased the library’s prominence in terms of opening to the public, raising its academic character, and adding a number of documents related to the history and provenance of art. The collections kept growing during the 1860s-70s and by 1890 the content had increased 12 times over. The 1970s saw a resurgence in interest in art history, and so once again the collections grew.
Aisha gave us some insights into how the library operates today. About 26 full-time equivalent library positions are occupied by various staff members. The classification scheme is not by subject, but instead alphanumeric — the books are arranged by height on the shelves. The numbers (the “pressmarks” or shelfmarks) don’t have meaning in and of themselves. The arrangement scheme is more “like with like” based on physical characteristics. Only the reference books are organized using the Dewey Decimal System. The NAL is not open access, which makes sense as it would be difficult for patrons to browse due to materials not shelved in subject order. It is indeed a “public library” but not in the sense of how we might automatically conceptualize it, as it is a reference-level collection (up to 8 items can be requested at one time, but books cannot be loaned out). Staff can take materials out of the library, but they are not allowed to take them off the premises. Wifi and online resources are made able to patrons, as well as ready access to the Special Collections desk and staff. About half of the materials in the collections are acquired, not purchased. Many come through exchanges.
Space is clearly at a premium. Most of the collections are housed on-site and are scattered across the museum, such as the three floors of stores located in the Central Court area. For example, the periodical stacks (which include titles such as Punch, Vogue, etc.) are full to the brim. Aisha explained that they have about 11,000 periodical titles. Of those about 1,000 are current, meaning that they have to process about 50-100 new issues per week! The NAL has complete runs for many historical periodicals, which is quite unique. Some Special Collections items are kept in locked cupboards or safes with very limited access. In fact, staff have to alert the security team when those items are being accessed. Aisha explained that if a patron wants to see something like this, the staff asks “why” — and sometimes will substitute a good-quality facsimile to protect the original item. Other things, like sales catalogues, are always in high demand for viewing, as they help to document the provenance of particular items. Our tour ended with a lighthearted note of the “trendy” thing that the library is now collecting: comic books.