I work in the Art and Research Library at the Detroit Institute of Arts, an art museum not unlike the Victoria & Albert Museum. As our group set out for a visit to the V&A, it came as no surprise that this museum, like the DIA, has an art library (the National Art Library) and it was interesting to compare and contrast the two.
The V&A’s library is open to the public with about 30,000 visitors a year. There is direct access to it on the second floor of the museum and a wide variety of individuals flow in and out with various motives: either to use the quiet space to read and study or take advantage of the extensive art book collection. In contrast, while the DIA’s art library is also open to anyone, it has restricted access and available only by appointment. Visitors (primarily scholars and graduate students and not the general public) are received on the first floor of the museum at one of the back entrances by the head librarian, Maria, or one of the interns and taken up three floors via the elevator, which requires an employee’s badge to operate.
Since the V&A is a national library and the DIA’s library is not, there are some obvious discrepancies in the development and very nature of the two libraries. Nevertheless, the similarities are striking. Both libraries are academic in nature and relate to the study and practice of art. V&A’s library came much earlier and was first designed to train students the basics of design in a small, practical learning environment. The original collection was not art focused and burnt down around 1851. In 1857 this library moved to where it is today and was officially named the Victoria & Albert National Art Library in 1899, only 28 years before the library at the Detroit Institute of Arts was built (1927). Both are reference only libraries. Visitors have access to all books in the general collection but cannot take them out of the library. Staff members are able to “checkout” books, but no books are allowed to leave the premises (although at the DIA, we suspect they do anyway).
After comparing and contrasting these two libraries, it was helpful for me in my work as an intern at the DIA to know we are not the only library of this kind, and are actually international in nature and design. I think this reflects the era these libraries were built, when art was expanding into the academic discipline it is today. I have always been delighted to work in the Art and Research Library at the DIA, but after seeing the National Art Library at the V&A and knowing the DIA’s library is so comparable, there is a deepened sense of appreciation.