Visiting the National Art Library was a very interesting experience. By now, we have visited a few libraries or archives that live inside other institutions: St. Paul's Cathedral Library, British Museum General Archive, National Maritime Museum Library. Each of these has different but largely positive relationships with their partner institutions. However, the National Art Library seemed to be more tenuously tied with the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose space it shares, than the other institutions.
The National Art Library is open to the public, and most of the materials are closed access--in other words, a librarian must retrieve them for patrons. Patrons can then view their items in the Library's two reading rooms, one of which is for silent study and the other which allows collaborative study. The Library has an online catalog, but there is no remote access, and access to rare materials in the collection is only allowed if the patron can provide sufficient credentials and need to access the material.
While the National Art Library had an extensive collection of periodicals, exhibition and auction catalogs, and books to do with art, as well as rare books, it has very little space and a tightly restricted budget. As a result, the library has had to devise creative solutions to fit all its materials in the space it is allotted and shares the Victoria and Albert Museum's Conservation department.
This arrangement was very surprising to me, especially given the mission statement on the Victoria and Albert Museum's "About Us" page:
The purpose of the Victoria and Albert Museum is to enable everyone to enjoy its collections and explore the cultures that created them; and to inspire those who shape contemporary design.
All our efforts are focused upon a central purpose - the increased use of our displays, collections and expertise as resources for learning, creativity and enjoyment by audiences within and beyond the United Kingdom.
To me, that statement all but shouts for close interaction with and strong support of a library. A library aids scholarship by providing a body of knowledge that complements what can be learned from Museum objects themselves. A library provides background that allows scholars to understand the materials used to create a piece of art and how that piece fits into the history of art and of society as a whole. Even more, a library contains materials that will help the museum better share their collections with the public--books on museum studies, community relations, and principles of education. For all these reasons, I hope the National Art Library, with all its valuable resources, soon takes its rightful place as a mutual partner with the Victoria and Albert Museum with its mission of bringing art to the public.