Sunday, June 12, 2022

Day 4 – The National Art Library

The National Art Library is the preeminent art library in Britain and is located in London within the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, which specializes in decorative arts (see website). It has three primary functions: to serve the public, to provide information to museum curators conducting research, and to support curatorial art and design of book “objects,” of which the library has an impressive collection. The library is 20 years older than the museum and was created independently to support a government-sponsored School of Design in the 19th century. As the school became more commercial and the public’s interest in the arts grew due to the Great Exposition of 1851 and other factors, the library leadership changed the collection focus from instruction to history and reference.
Although the library continues to be open to the public, hours have been reduced to 11-5 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays due to staff shortages. The National Art Library has a budget of approximately £1.8 million annually and is funded by the government; specifically, the Department of National Heritage. Its funding has decreased substantially since 2005 but the library is unwilling to charge its patrons and does not appear to have a staff member devoted to fundraising, so its funding is problematic and an issue of concern.
An innovative series launch in 1948
from my former employer
The library consists of several large rooms furnished in a very traditional style with dark furniture and little green reading lights reminiscent of the New York Public Library and Widener Library in Cambridge. Only the desktop computers and scanning machines remind one that we are in the 21st century. The room closest to the entrance is a reading room that seats eighty-four readers and, at busy periods, people have to be turned away. It is popular with local art students as well as those from the nearby Imperial Collection, which focuses on STEM subjects. Art researchers who come to use the material fill out requests or submit them online and the books are brought to them. The staff told us the library has gone through difficult times financially, failing to replace staff who retire in recent years, then furloughing staff during the pandemic and not hiring them all back. V&A staff used to have the privilege of being able to come in to use the materials when the library was closed but now there aren’t enough library staff to monitor usage and prevent misuse of materials. The second large room is for reference and patrons are allowed to use these books freely. A third large room has been partially taken over by the museum: books are still shelved but they are partitioned off and the room now contains art and museum visitors.  It is symbolic of the conflict between the museum, which needs more space, and the library, which doesn't want to move elsewhere.
The overflow room - books and art - 
and some puzzled museum-goers!
Our hosts were Frances Willis and Jen Reeves, both trained librarians. Frances showed us a number of rare items, including some of the oldest books in the collection and some of the unusually crafted books that are considered art. The rare materials are displayed on special cushions are usually washable and filled with beads, so as not to distort the shape of the item being examined. Jen, who was very lively, gave us a tour, starting with the reading and reference rooms. Although we were all impressed by the library, which is extremely attractive, we especially enjoyed going behind the scenes to see the stacks and storage. Overall, the library holds more than 850,000 books, journals and unpublished manuscripts from the 13th century to the present.  A Pictorial History of Music by Paul Henry Lang is part of the collection.
An example of book art, 
displayed for us on a "book sofa"
I asked what the most valuable items in the collection are and Jen said probably Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and Charles I’s letters. They also have all the records from the 1851 Exposition. Library users are interested in the old auction catalogs which can sometimes be used to establish provenance. I was particularly intrigued by the Pevsner Architectural series that seems to coverall all of Britain, with fairly detailed descriptions of notable buildings by county. While the library catalog is available online and patrons can request materials that will be waiting for them on arrival, the library’s databases cannot be accessed remotely. The library does not seem to have adopted as many remote services during the pandemic as libraries in the US did. Library items do not circulate, however, they can be read/examined on site or copied (copyright permitting) using book scanners.
Side gate of Kensington Palace
Cromwell Road runs right in front of the V&A, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum, and as we approached I thought about the three most famous fictional heroines to live on that same road (further east, I assume), Pauline, Petrova, and Posy Fossil. The V&A takes up 12.5 acres and has 145 galleries. I don’t remember my first visit to the museum although I do recall that my friend Valerie and I went to Mass at the nearby Brompton Oratory on that same trip. It is the kind of museum that can seem overwhelming if you are trying to find one thing, but very entertaining if you just feel like wandering. Even the gift shop was full of exquisite items.
From the King's Chambers
After we left the NAL, we walked to Kensington Palace for a tour. Although William and Kate did not invite us to tea (admittedly, they had an exhausting weekend with all the Jubilee festivities, not to mention Harry and Meghan angst), we greatly enjoyed the three areas open to the public, The King’s Rooms, The Queen’s Rooms, Victoria’s Rooms, and a special exhibit on royal photography. I got the headphones that provided extremely good commentary as one progresses; I was very surprised by the party line that William III was desolate after Mary II died. I have not read much about them other than Elisabeth Kyle’s Princess of Orange but she certainly didn’t think he was very fond. Apparently, I missed a Victoria Sponge in the café, as I dashed back to the dorm for a belated Orientation Session. It is my favorite English dessert and I must find some soon! Afterward, I stopped by Nicky’s Marylebone library again, got a library card, and checked out two books. The library seems much smaller than the old space but is bright and is in a more prominent location, I think. I have seen a lot of children wearing uniforms in the area: I am slightly jealous of all the plaid skirts and navy blazers with emblems. Most state and fee-paying school children still wear uniforms in Britain.
Allegedly, the bed in which James II's son
was smuggled in via a warming pan - or not!
Miles walked: 4.6
Books: 2 but they are from the library so do not count


Cath said...

Wait... we have Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks in the UK? I must ask you how that came to be when you get here! That's a really nice photo of you. Enjoying your posts about libraries I didn't know existed.

CLM said...

Apparently several from his time in Milan. I think scholars are allowed to see them but although the staff brought out some valuable things for us to see, the Notebooks were not among them.

After church this morning, a nice young man told me about several other rare libraries I don't think my professors know, one at Lambeth Palace and one for a Stationers Guild. Maybe for the next course!

Katrina said...

I must admit I'm really envious but thank you for the very interesting blogposts.

Jennifer said...

I am thoroughly enjoying all the posts about your trip though I am eaten up with envy. And I completely agree; Victoria Sponge is my favorite British dessert as well.

JaneGS said...

Another very interesting post. Would love to be able to visit all the wonderful libraries you are documenting. I also was impressed that the collection included Da Vinci notebooks. I would visit just to get a glimpse of those!