Sunday, 12 August 2012

Labor of Love, the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert museum

National Art Library: Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
I have to start out by saying that if you want to look at one of the great loves of all time, I'd look no further than Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In a time when arranged marriages were the rule and it was considered a victory if you could stand to be in the same room as one another, Victoria and Albert were madly in love. Looking at a statue of the two of them dressed up in Saxon costumes at the National Portrait Gallery I got the feeling they were /those/ people. 

That couple that was always being painfully adorable to the point where they caused eye rolling whenever they walked in a room, or they would have had Victoria not been the most powerful woman on earth. But if you really want to see the sheer joy that Victoria had for Albert stop every 20 yards or so in and look around. Without a doubt you'll spy one of the dozens of memorials that Victoria built in Albert's honor after he passed away. The Victoria and Albert, founded in 1852 is one of these monuments. 

The National Art Library is housed within the building. It was founded in 1837 and was originally housed in Somerset House before being moved to the Victoria and Albert in 1852. The dedicated library space was built in 1884 and it's been there ever since. The National Art Library is one of 3 major Art Reference libraries in the world, with the Getty Art Reference Library in the USA being another. Books are organized by subject and the library is closed on Sunday and Monday. Our tour was conducted by librarian Sally Williams. The catalog for the library is available and searchable online from anywhere in the world. The National Art Library is a lending, but no books older than 1900 leave the library, and neither do special collection items like the many Book Art
pieces the library has. While people can come into the library and gain a reader's card with relative ease, rare books are issued from a specific desk so the staff can make sure that these materials are being kept track of. 

There are 1 million books in the library, 11,000 periodicals, an extensive collection of 4,000 Art and Design items, 18,000 volumes in the Forrest Collection (Forrest was a personal friend of Charles Dickens) and they also have a large collection of Book Art, which are books that are actually works of art; books are not only tomes of knowledge at the art library, they are also judged on their aesthetic credentials. 

Books, like at the British library, are sorted according to size in order to save space. The staff learns to find the books in their unconventional locations. 

The library takes advantage of its space, creating exhibits to be shown in the library, which raises public awareness of the library's existence and helps to draw in new readers. Currently their first folio is on display, but they have countless other treasures. 

We were able to see a number of precious works, including the original manuscript of Bleak House, in which we got
to see some of Dickens' less than stellar alternative titles. "The Man
All Alone In the Bleak House, Always Shut Up and Never Let Out" was my personal favorite.

Book of Nails Art Book: Photo Courtesy of Kate Aras                                                            

Unfortunately for the V&A, a lack of funding means that they cannot undertake major digitization efforts, but they do make small bursts of effort when they are able. At first I was wary of a library that was aligning itself too much with a museum environment, but I think that the National Art Library has a good idea in using their collection to raise awareness and funding so that they can continue their work.


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