31 July, 2007

The National Art Library: Victoria & Albert Museum

The National Art Library is housed inside the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The Victoria & Albert began as the South Kensington Museum in 1852. In 1899 it became the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the National Art Library has been housed inside it ever since. The library itself has a wide range of materials from books, medieval manuscripts, and artist's books, to prints, trade literature, and periodicals. There are over 8,000 titles of periodicals to choose from, 2,500 of which are current and still have issues coming in. The libraries reference collection is arranged according to Dewey Decimal Classification, and are the only books that readers can get off the shelves themselves. All other books are shelved according to size and press mark and are located by the staff upon request. As we went behind the scenes into the staff area, I couldn't help but take notice of the huge amount of books that have yet to be cataloged because of time and staffing. This seems to be a common theme in libraries not just in the United Kingdom but back home in the States as well. It is amazing to see how similar some things are so far away.

My favorite part of the National Library tour was having the chance to look at various pieces of book art. These books are in the collection not necessarily for their content, but because the books themselves are works of art. These pieces are generally made one at a time and are produced in very small numbers because the whole process is done by hand. One art book was the scrapbook of a society lady from the turn of the 20th century. Inside she had programs and menus from various balls and gatherings as well as autographs from well known aristocrats of the era. Another beautifully crafted book was Aunt Sallie's Lament by Margaret Kaufman. It is a poem about a quilt making spinster who reflects on her life through the pieces of quilting she produces. What's extraordinary about the book's binding is that the shapes of the pages fold out to create a geometric quilt design. It amazes me to see a finished product like this and imagine what the artist was thinking throughout the entire design process.

The last book that really caught my attention was the journal of woman named Joann Morgan who was teaching English overseas in Japan in 1997. The journal was a real book called Maps to Get Lost In that she doodled little notes and drawings about her experiences in. I really felt a connection with that piece because I taught overseas for a semester and could relate to many of the feelings she was struggling with in the journal.