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A Day in the Life of an Art Librarian


The author and a colleague in Watson Library.

During my weekly shifts at the reference desk at the Thomas J. Watson Library, I routinely get asked the same question by inquisitive Museum visitors who pass by our doors: "The Museum has a library?" Over the years, I have learned to treat this as an opportunity to promote the library's collection, services, and resources.

It does not occur to most Museum visitors that museums usually have libraries. In fact, until I saw the job opening for my position, it had not really occurred to me either. I now know that art libraries play an essential role in the research of the Museum staff. Additionally, they serve a broad community of researchers from around the world. In fact, the Museum's original charter in 1870 stated that the Museum should have a library to support the research of the staff. Ten years later, the library was founded. And despite the preconceived notions that one might have about an art library being highbrow, stuffy, or antiquated, Watson Library is one of the most progressive and user-friendly art libraries I've encountered.

I have been at Watson Library for nearly nine years, and though my job description has not changed all that much, I find that my day-to-day work changes constantly. It involves everything from answering questions at the reference desk about works in the Museum's collections to measuring space in the stacks for our growing number of books. The main responsibility of my position is to make sure the library patrons find what they need as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Occasionally, the pace at Watson Library becomes incredibly hectic, but more often it is a steady stream of constant activity. On a given afternoon the library may have a Reading Room packed with visiting researchers, studying and typing away on their laptops. There may be several curators checking books out at the Circulation Desk. The reference librarian may be helping a graduate student find information online about a Met painting. And there may be a group of people scanning images on our digital scanners. And, in addition to all of this, there will be scholars browsing the stacks for the perfect book. It's the variety of the daily routine that makes the library such an enjoyable place to work.


Using a digital scanner in Watson Library.

Watson Library's collection contains nearly 700,000 volumes, including monographs and exhibition catalogues; over 11,000 periodical titles; and more than 125,000 auction and sale catalogues. In the past, this extensive collection of print publications was the main attraction for most of our library patrons. Now we find that many people come to Watson to use our many electronic resources (including full-text and image databases, indexes, and selected Internet resources). As an increasing amount of scholarly material becomes available online, Watson Library has the opportunity to teach experienced and novice library users how to sift through it all. Additionally, we are embarking on projects to digitize parts of our collection. This will provide access from our online catalog, WATSONLINE, by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

In the last few years, Watson Library has worked to increase services to our users and to make the library collections more accessible. We have extended our hours during the week and added Saturdays hours. The recent purchase of two state-of-the-art digital scanners allow users to scan library materials and send the scans to email or save them to USB drives free of charge. We now page books daily from most of the Museum's departmental libraries, providing access to over 138,000 books, journals and auction catalogues that were not previously available to library patrons. Our efforts are paying off. In 2009, we welcomed 1,370 new visiting researchers to the Watson Library, significantly more than in previous years.


Nolen Library includes computers for online art-related resarch.

Nolen Library is another wonderful resource for students, art historians, teachers, and children. Located in the Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education in the Museum, it is open to everyone. Nolen Library’s approximately eight thousand items are arranged on open shelves. In addition, there is a collection of materials specifically for teachers and a children's reading room.

Watson and Nolen are just two libraries within the Museum's large library system. The other important libraries include The Cloisters Library and Archive, which collects research material for the study of medieval art and related topics; The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library, one of the world's foremost fashion libraries; The Robert Goldwater Library, a research library dedicated to the documentation of the visual arts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Native and Precolumbian America; The Robert Lehman Collection Library, which covers a broad range of European fine and decorative arts, with special emphasis on the history and art of Siena and on the study of frames; The Joyce F. Menschel Photography Library that supports the study of the Museum’s photographs collection and includes the personal library of Alfred Stieglitz; and The Onassis Library, a research facility for the study of Greek and Roman Art. Information about each of these libraries is available online. I think it is fair to say that the library collections of the Met represent the largest and most comprehensive collection of research material on the history of art. It is just incomparable.

Lisa Harms is associate manager for circulation and collections, Thomas J. Watson Library.

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