15 August 2011

The National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum


July 14

I’ve been to the Victoria and Albert Museum before, but I never stopped to think about its having a library.
When the LIS group got to the V&A, we were early, but soon enough it opened, we dropped our things off at the coat check, and then, figuring out how to read the map (I am very glad to say that the map has been improved since my visit 7 years ago), we all made our way to the reading room entrance.  On the walls outside are beautiful paintings, but I didn’t get a chance to look too closely. And then we were inside the National Art Library.



Inside we were met by Alicia Chved and Sally Williams, two staff members, and split into two groups.  My group went with Sally first, by a twisty route to a back room, where art library materials were laid out on the table. 

There were all kinds of different books, including a fur book designed as a protest, an original Audubon book with the life-size paintings of birds that made him famous (the library has over 400 prints of his paintings), Charles Dickens’ original manuscript of David Copperfield, a facsimile of three volumes of Da Vinci’s codex, and medieval illuminated manuscripts written in Latin and indecipherable to me. The codex facsimile is a method of preservation and it is very valuable, but it and most of the items the library holds can be requested by anyone.

Sally explained that the Dickens manuscript came from the John Forster collection, one of the biggest the library has.  Forster was a friend of Dickens and the executor of his estate; the collection holds 18,000 items. The library holds the largest collection of Great Exhibition items. She also explained about having to deal with former mistakes, an example being pages of an item being pasted onto pages of a blank books, effectively ruining them.  This seems to be a common theme in many of the archives we visited—until now, the staff who worked with archives items were not trained or used faulty methods, and now that archives education has really started to  take off, conservationists and preservationists have their hands full dealing with the actions of their predecessors. 

After she finished talking about the items, Sally actually let us touch them, and take pictures.  Not the Dickens manuscript itself, but we turned the pages of the mounting, and I was a little afraid to touch the medieval manuscripts.  The fur book was nice, though.  

As we were looking through the materials, the second group came in, and we all filed out for a tour of the library with Alicia.

*Please note that this involved another awful staircase and a horribly high balcony jaunt, so my notes may not be up to par.



Alicia explained that the library actually predates the museum; it was begun in 1857 as part of the school of design. It came to South Kensington with the Great Exhibition, and is one of the few functioning Victorian libraries left.  We ventured up into one of the areas of stacks, which was a bit cramped but chock-a-block with materials.  We were shown processing requests, and there was a younger woman there who was gathering requested materials, and putting them in the little dumbwaiter thingy to be taken down to patrons.

We paused here and were told that the library holds all kinds of materials-books, art, textiles, glass, ceramics, theater, architectural items, etc.  They have general collections and special collections, and most collections are foreign language, as they are European materials. We saw the huge collection of auction catalogs, dating from the 18th century—I found it funny that, according to Alicia, the auction houses go there a lot to research their own archived catalogs, to see what they priced an item and whatnot.  There are locked cabinets for special items (although really, most of the things they have would qualify for this, I’d say); this is where the eleven Dickens’ manuscripts that the library owns—out of the fourteen total he produced—are held.

The cataloging system is much like others in London and the UK—devised by the library itself.  I was wishing a bit that I had gone for my master’s in the UK, if only for the fact that I wouldn’t have had to take cataloging.  Anyway, their classification is pretty jumbled, mainly done by size, which makes sense with the variety of materials the library has (and £300,000 to spend a year on books, a budget which would flabbergast most of the libraries in the United States).

One of the most surprising things to me is that the V&A library is not a lending library.  I suppose that makes sense, it being in a museum, but only staff are allowed to take out books.  They have many online databases for patrons to use, but anything to do with hard copy materials must be done in the reading room. 
The whole systems sounds like a lot of work, but Alicia told us that everyone on staff does a little bit of everything. I think that’s true of most libraries, but here it sounds like every job gets learned by everyone.

This is where we ventured out onto the balconies, which are narrow and rather high, and I was very uncomfortable, trying to face the wall so that I didn’t have to look down.  Halfway through and it seems like every place we go has something awful, like see-through floors or really high staircases! I didn’t get much out of this part of the tour, feeling like I was going to die and all.  I do remember Alicia showing us catalogs from department stores and explaining how people don’t understand why the library would want or need to save those.

After we came down and I felt less like dying, our tour was pretty much over.  I did catch glimpses of patrons in the reading room, using foam thingies (the word escapes me right now) to support the materials they were using.  I’m guessing very old materials. 

Afterward we all went for lunch (I only got a hot chocolate and a fizzy lemonade) and then Olivia, Katie and I wandered the gift shop. We still had some time before we had to head over to the Geographical Society for another tour, so Katie and I went upstairs to the jewelry exhibit which was glorious. I mean, really gorgeous stuff, and Katie made fun of me because I was all wide-eyed and probably drooling a bit. I even braved the insane staircase to the second floor, which was made of completely transparent acrylic or glass or something equally evil. I think I could have lived in that room forever.

But I didn’t, and the three of us set off down the street for the Royal Geographical Society.

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