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Art/ Libraries and Research Centers/ Thomas J. Watson Library/ About the Library

About the Library

Interior view of the Florence and Irving Herbert Reading Room, showing library patrons seated at tables reading and using computers

The founders of The Metropolitan Museum of Art understood the essential role of the library to the institution's mission. In 1870 the New York State legislature passed a bill that created "a body corporate by the name of 'The Metropolitan Museum of Art,' to be located in the City of New York, for the purpose of establishing and maintaining in said city a Museum and library of art." The library was formally established ten years after this charter was approved, and today the Museum and library share the distinction of being among the world's greatest treasuries for the study of the arts of many cultures. In its scope, Thomas J. Watson Library reflects the encyclopedic permanent collection, with particularly strong holdings in European and American art, including architecture and the decorative arts, as well as substantial holdings in ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Asian, and Islamic art. In addition, several curatorial departments have specialized libraries of their own.

Along with many exhibition, collection, and auction sale catalogs, other books and periodicals, and extensive electronic resources relating to the history of art, Watson Library and the Museum's several specialized libraries possess a number of rare and important titles that are notable for both their historical importance and their scholarly value.

In addition to funding the library building that bears his name, Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM and a trustee of the Museum from 1951 until 1956, endowed a book purchase fund. Other important donations from the Watson family have included an endowed position (Arthur K. Watson Chief Librarian) and the funding of early automation projects by Helen Watson Buckner, the daughter of Thomas J. Watson.

The Lita Annenberg Hazen and Joseph H. Hazen Center for Electronic Resources, an integral part of Watson Library, was inaugurated in November 1997. The center was the first of its kind in any art museum in the United States or abroad. The Hazen Center provides training and support in the use of an extensive collection of electronic scholarly material, including numerous indexes, encyclopedias, dictionaries, full-text journals, databases, and Internet resources.

A post on the Now at the Met feature of the Metropolitan Museum's web site celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the 1910 opening of a new library reading room.  The article includes some early photographs of the library and images of McKim, Mead & White designs for library furniture. Read the article here.



The library contains over 1,020,000 volumes, including monographs and exhibition catalogs; over 21,000 periodical titles; and more than 140,000 auction and sale catalogs. It also provides access to an extensive collection of electronic resources (including numerous indexes, encyclopedias, dictionaries, online journals, databases, and Internet resources), autograph letters, and ephemera files relating to individual artists and to the history of the Museum.


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The Reference Collection

The reference collection includes a broad range of resources for art historical research as well as relevant material for history, mythology, religion, biography, and travel, among other subjects.

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Auction and Sale Catalogs

The library possesses one of the world's most comprehensive collections of auction and sale catalogs, dating from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day. The collection includes extensive historical holdings of Sotheby's, Christie's, Hôtel Drouot, Dorotheum, Phillips, and many other small auction houses, both American and international.

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Rare Book Collection

Gifts from J. Pierpont Morgan, Samuel Putnam Avery, and other founders and early trustees of the Museum established the foundation of the library's rare book collection. Generous donors provide funding for this collection of treatises on art and architecture, early travel books, archaeological studies, rare collection catalogs, artists' manuals and handbooks, and complete runs of seminal journals.

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Manuscript Items

The more than 5,000 manuscript items in the collection include Samuel Putnam Avery's European travel diary, about 1,400 autograph letters to and from Sir Richard Westmacott, and numerous other autograph letters and papers relating to prominent artists.

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Artists' Publications

The artists' publications study collection supports research and scholarship on these important works. This collection, international in scope, includes artists' books, zines, bookworks, artist magazines, pamphlets, artists' files, reference books, dealer catalogs, pricelists, journals, and all forms of artists' publishing. Books are acquired through gift and purchase.

Digital Collections

Over 1.1 million pages of content, from across the Met and partner institutions, are freely accessible online through Watson Library's Digital Collections. Museum publications, dealer archives, manuscripts, sound recordings, trade and exhibition catalogs, images, decorated bindings, and more are represented.

Duveen Brothers Archive

Watson Library is one of the four libraries in the world to hold the 422-reel microfilm copy of the Duveen Brothers Archive (1876-1981). The records of the Duveen Brothers fine art dealership, which operated from 1869 to 1964 in London, Paris, and New York, offers a detailed view of the business activities of the important firm of art dealers. The Archives are significant primary source material for many aspects of art historical scholarship, including the history of collecting.

Collection Development Policies

The Metropolitan Museum of Art libraries have created the following collection development policies as a planning guide for developing each library’s collection, and to clarify the selection criteria used to build and maintain that collection.

Watson Library

The Thomas J. Watson Library is the central research library of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The primary mission of the library is to support the research activities of the Museum staff. In addition, the library serves an international community of scholars, including museum, academic and commercial art professionals and college and graduate students. To this end its goal is to provide among the most comprehensive collections of printed, manuscript, and electronic materials on the history of art in the world.

Read the complete Policy

In addition to the Watson Library collection development policy, see also these Met library pages for policies specific to their collections: