Visit to the Courtauld Library

On the 24th of March we visited the Library of the Courtauld Institute of Art, which is situated in the basement of Somerset House. The Library holds a significant art historical collection and is one of the major international research collections of art historical books, periodicals and exhibition catalogues in the UK. It is a very beautiful building, with red brick vaulted ceilings, full length windows and spiral stair cases, the students, d├ęcor and architecture were all to my mind perfectly suited to an art library.

We were met on our arrival by Boris, one of the Library’s Graduate Trainees and by Vicky the Deputy Book Librarian. We began our tour on the top mezzanine level and were shown around the service counter, staff offices, card catalogue and copy services. We were then brought to the Lower mezzanine level and shown around the book, periodical and exhibition catalogue collections. Boris and Vicky mentioned that their exhibition catalogue collection is particularly extensive and sought after. They hold approximately 180,000 volumes in the library, some of which are still recorded on the card catalogue. The Courtauld use an in-house classification scheme, which is largely based on the Library of Congress. Also held in the same building, though separately run, are the Conway and the Witt Libraries. The Conway collection is an image library and the Witt is collection of reproductions after paintings, drawings and prints.

We were then treated to a talk by Erica the head of Special Collections and by Deborah the head Cataloguer. Erica had pulled out some very interesting pieces from her collection to demonstrate the variety of books and objects stored in the Courtauld. These pieces included rare and old art books, which held both beautiful work within them and were themselves a work of art and modern pieces, which experiment with different forms, shapes, sizes and materials. She showed us one book which was coated in sandpaper and held together by bolts and another that played music upon opening the first page. She also showed us some volumes called artist books, which are books that are used as the artists medium and exist as a piece of art. Deborah then spoke about the processes and challenges involved in cataloguing art books and in particular exhibition catalogues and producing the best record which reflects and conveys the object. Deborah showed us one book that came hidden within a corrugated card case and explained that the challenge with cataloguing such a piece was how to convey the importance and the function of the case. Deborah explained that cataloguing such pieces involved a lot of thought and that there is no fixed format. It certainly seemed that the role of a cataloguer within an art library was a challenging, interesting and varied one.

We finished with tea and cakes in the library office, where Vicky, Erica and Deborah spoke to us about their own study and career paths. It was a truly enjoyable and interesting visit and I think it gave us trainees a great insight into the workings of an academic art library.

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