I haven't mentioned it here in this blog (for shame), but London museums rock in a number of ways that I can count: (a) many of them, especially the larger ones, are free -- a strange concept, having been hardened against that word in all cases save for "Winona" -- and (b) they are just a few tube stops away. The National Art Library, housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, takes that awesomeness one step further and has their entrance connect to the tube. As in, you never have to leave your snug, exhaust-filled hole for the light of day. Ah, how's that for convenience?
Situational excellence aside, the museum itself is great in its own right. I haven't an artistic bone in my body (attaining my fine arts credit in college was a series of unfortunate events, all of them involving charcoal, except that one time in sanguine), but I know enough to appreciate those who do. Walking through the entrance hall filled with huge, marble sculptures, I'm thankful to have arrived at the library staircase in one piece. There was a lot of gawking on my part. And plaque reading. But mostly gawking.
Our guide for the National Art Library is Frances. She's brisk, and it's a trait she sticks to for the remainder of our tour -- which is not to say it's a failing, per se, but certainly a challenge for my less-than-nimble fingers. I'm up for it -- I hope.
Upon entering the reading room, we are thankfully allowed in our backpacks (mine is well over the limit and roughly the size of a small farm animal). Frances gives us the library run-down as we hurry by different centers, on our left, counter service (3-5 staff members), on our right, the enquiry desk (visitors are able to register for 3 years or 3 months -- a curiously wide gap). We likewise hurry by other places of interest, such as special collections (where they have a day book to sign in and out members), a camera stand (for books before 1930, journals before 1900), and librarians doing things that are no doubt Important and requiring Deep Concentration (I presume for the best). And then we're whooshed through to the Marshalling Area.
It's not as exciting as the name implies, unfortunately. Basically, it means that the materials placed here are closed access, apart from reference items. Users can request up to six items at a time (searchable through the online catalogue, organized by Dewey). Librarians deliver the materials to individual seat humbers, which users pick up upon arrival in the reading room. I do like this part, similar to eating in a diner, only this time it's feasting on books. And it seems to be a system that works: it's been in place since 1899.
One of the perks of being a staff member in the National Art Library, in addition to handling such beautiful books, is the ability to borrow them. From the general collection, the terms of borrowing are in-house; staff are allowed to check out up to twenty items, "keeping" any for up to three months. I'm not sure how meaningful this type of lending would be for me in theory, especially as patrons can still borrow a librarian's borrowed titles, but it's for the betterment of the collection -- that most everything stays put. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of this lending tunnel: in the staff area, titles are available that librarians can borrow in the traditional sense.
The staff area is also home to the acquisitions, cataloging, and art librarianship departments (as well as a cornered off break room/cubicle, which again, is a nice effort, but seemingly only in theory). As with all cataloging departments, the backlog comes with the territory, but it's a workable system; all items are accessable on the date the book arrives on the premises. The gifts and exchange network the library has set up collaborates with libraries and art galleries across the globe, and this global influence is seen further in their exhibition catalogs that date back to the 1700s. Once more, the dreaded size classification scheme comes into play (alas, the sore lack of space! But the librarians here bear their cross more than willingly), but there is further organization that I can get behind: by country, gallery, form -- then moving towards size.
It's certainly a gorgeous library, which we are able to see to its full effect, standing now on the second floor balcony that overlooks the reading room, and next the west room, cleared out for a gallery space for a 20th century collection. Book slips are tucked between the titles that line the walls, and books themselves are tucked into every space possible (the boiler cupboards set into the shelves, for instance). Nicely enough, Frances lets us snap away with our cameras -- something not to be taken for granted, as is often the case.
Indeed, when we're taken to our final destination, the Word and Image Department (located several hallways, flights of stairs, and oh yes, the inevitably overpriced but divine-smelling-at-this-hour café away), there are book treasures galore laid out on a long cloth-covered table. And more than simply seeing them, we're allowed to take pictures of the actual items. A part of me is pretty paranoid -- when is it not? -- but the worry here is for good reason. Before us is assortment of mind-blowing proportions, among them: illuminated letters, an annotated edition of Gulliver's Travels, David Copperfield with Dicken's own impossibly neat notes. However strong the desire is to photograph to my geeky heart's content, the librarian in me comes with her own deep-seated warnings. What kind of light damage are we doing? And why are we risking it?
I suppose I can rationalize our possible wrongdoing with the fact that this is not a public display, an everyday showing. It's both gratifying and humbling to be trusted with such rare materials, but all the while knowing that they will remain long after I've left this world. And it's not such a maudlin sentiment, really. I find a lot of comfort in knowing that these places of learning, if not the libraries themselves (alas), but the drive behind preserving our past in books and ephemera, these feelings will sustain. Whether they be in smaller collections, gallery spaces -- or museums, found at the end of tunnels.
The National Art Library homepage