Art Libraries in the Age of Covid-19

July 1 2021

Image of Art Libraries in the Age of Covid-19

Picture: Courtauld Institute of Arts

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

I thought that it might be worth drawing attention to the difficulties in accessing the London libraries at the moment. This is particularly the case with art history related materials, which are essential for both academia and the art market.

The National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the go-to for nearly all art related printed materials and auction records, is closed until December 2021 for updates. The Heinz Library and Archive at the National Portrait Gallery is also currently closed due to Covid restrictions. This leaves just the British Library which is running an online booking system (full of bugs in my experience) with a very long waiting time to book a desk. Pre-ordering of materials, 48+ hours in advance, is also mandatory. This process, which was already tricky at times, has become even more user un-friendly than before.

I know that many of you will be thinking – ‘why doesn’t Adam just get his act together and organise himself properly?’ All picture researchers will know that visits to libraries often require a certain degree of spontaneity with quick and light-footed work. Intriguing references can take you to all sorts of places, many of which are quickly accessible when one has the ability to request materials on the day. This sort of work will now take multiple days, if not weeks, to complete. In particular, I have no idea how auction houses and art dealers have managed to cope in preparation for the upcoming sales and fairs. There are only so many books that can be purchased for their private libraries, hence why resources of rare sales catalogues, image archives, exhibition catalogues and book libraries are so important for due diligence.

University libraries, including the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, are also currently barring visitors access to their resources due to the ‘need to prioritise our internal students and staff who have been without library access for the majority of this year’. In recent correspondence with the Courtauld Library they explained to me that they ‘would be unable to say when we will open to visitors.’

Art historians in New York are also relaying the same issues. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Library is running a limited strictly appointment only service, with pre-ordering required, that is booked out weeks in advance. The Frick Collection Library, already reduced due to ongoing renovations, are also booked up until September.

In London’s case, one hopes that the UK's planned wide lifting of restrictions on 19th July will help the situation greatly. I’m sure many art historians are hoping that these libraries have a plan to get things back to normal as quickly as possible with the resources they need to do so smoothly and efficiently.

Comments from readers are always welcome and will, as ever, be treated anonymously.

Update - A reader writes:

I too have a list as long as my arm of archives I need access. In contrast to the terrible service from the BL, NAL and RIBA, the local libraries and archives have been so helpful and prompt in offering their services over the past year or so that they are really showing up the big boys.

Another reader writes:

Thank you for drawing attention to this extremely trying situation. You are absolutely right that research has become very difficult with these libraries staying closed. Far from thinking ‘why doesn’t Adam just get his act together and organise himself properly?’, I am thinking why on earth is the Heinz Archive, the National Art Library and the Witt staying closed when so much else is doing its utmost to re-open? What possible justification can there be for the NAL to be closed for the whole of the rest of this year other than the fact that they recently proposed closing permanently and Covid is an excuse to effectively do so by the back door. Disgraceful.

Another reader has pointed out some of the alternative libraries available:

I quite agree that the closure of the National Art Library is highly disappointing.  On a positive note, the London Library has been brilliant: careful, with a straightforward booking system, opening promptly and flexibly.  Elsewhere things are getting better.  The British Library and the National Archives have systems that can be navigated with experience!  The Tate library and the Paul Mellon Centre library have responded positively.  Not all doom and gloom!

Another reader gives their experience of regional archives:

This is most certainly not restricted to London. I am booked tomorrow to visit my third regional archive since they have reopened, and it hasn't been easy. This particular archive is only open two days a week, and you are only able to book a three hour slot for either the morning or afternoon, and only 8 documents in advance can be ordered. I'm impressed with how helpful they have tried to be in the face of this. I visited another archive who had similar restrictions last week, and was told that two thirds of the staff have been made redundant owing to the pandemic, and there were no plans to hire additional staff because of cuts. This is definitely going to have a knock on effect upon the art market and art research. I also can't see this being rectified any time soon. 

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