Thursday, July 15, 2010

National Art Library

On 15 July our class took a trip to the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The National Art Library is a public reference library with about two million items in its collection. The collection contains books and journals on all aspects of the arts and about 60% of the items are in a foreign language. Although it is a public library, readers must register before they look at materials (cards are valid for three years), and all items must be viewed in the reading rooms. Readers may look up their materials in the online catalogue, or get reference assistance at the enquiry desk. The Library also offers several e-resources, such as JSTOR.

As part of our visit we were given a special behind-the-scenes tour. Seven of us went first to see some special items that had been selected especially for our viewing. Included in these items were a Shakespeare First Folio from 1623, corrected proofs and serialized versions of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, and correspondence from John Edward Millais. I found the most interesting item to be what at first appeared to be an empty snow globe, but when shaken turned out to have words from the Pledge of Allegiance inside. The piece was from 1994. Our guide mentioned that because the collection is so large, the Library tries as much as possible to preserve rather than conserve and we saw several items that had custom archival boxes.

After viewing those treasures, we went into the stacks. With the exception of the archives, all of the Library's collections were on site. Due to the large size of the collection, items were housed everywhere, some above the regular museum collections, and others above the bookshelves or in cupboards. The two beautiful main reading rooms had books on the main floor as well as in galleries above. A third room featuring part of the museum's collection also had a gallery. Hidden from view were two floors of stacks. While items had call numbers attached, they were shelved according to size to maximize space. Requested items are fetched by one of the sixty members of staff every half an hour.

At the end of the tour we were free to leave. I stayed in the museum for about an hour, visiting the shop and the Medieval and Renaissance collections. Afterward I took the tube to Covent Garden to browse.

Photo courtesy of the National Art Library.


  1. How did you like Covent Garden?

    Also, I'm curious about the items being shelved according to size yet having call numbers. How do the staff locate the items?

  2. Covent Garden was great, there was always some kind of public performance happening. On a later visit, a classmate and I went back and went into a shop to have a cupcakes. Just as we entered a pigeon flew in and got confused. It was rather frightening but also sad.

    I am not quite sure about the specifics of locating items, but I know there is a way.