We have come together to celebrate a 25th anniversary, but there was another beginning here in the U.S.A. nearly 90 years ago. In 1908 Jane Wright, librarian at Cincinnati Art Museum, published her Plea of the art librarian, thus becoming the first art librarian to seek the support of other art librarians (footnote 1). When we read her words today, especially the sentence in which she says "when one harassed art librarian has stated her mind, other harassed art librarians will come to her aid and help to flay the attacking Philistines", we are hearing much the same call to which art librarians were responding 25 years ago, and which led us to establish national, regional, and international associations of art librarianship. Yet a close reading of Jane Wright's plea also reveals a perception of art librarianship which we have enlarged; a crucial difference between 1908 and 1997 is that we have gained a broader and more accommodating view both of whom we are and of whom we serve, and that began to happen quarter of a century ago.
In essence. Jane Wright's was a plea for other librarians, notably those in public libraries, to respect her role as an art librarian working in a museum, serving a relatively small community of scholars. Her expressed view of the public library was that its field "must necessarily be broad, not deep... planned for the many average minds and interests, and never for the man or woman specialist." Thus, she did not envisage the public library as an environment in which an art librarian could have a role. And she did not envisage art librarians in education - probably because there weren't any.
It seems that Jane Wright's plea was made too soon. So far as is known, nothing happened for some years. Then, in the 1920s, art librarians in the United States began to get together, but in two different groups: some, including museum librarians, within the Special Libraries Association, while others, many if not all of whom worked in public libraries, formed an Art Reference Round Table within the American Library Association (footnote 2).
The art library movement, which we are so very much part of, came into being some 25 or so years ago. It is less important to stress who did what first than to highlight the fact that art librarians in Britain, North America, and France, were thinking along similar lines, and were in touch with each other. What was new and central to the bodies which emerged, including ARLIS/NA, was a willingness to recognise and accommodate different types of art librarian -- not least because now there were many more art libraries and art librarians of different kinds: a major factor behind the emergence of ARLIS groups was the growth of art education and the proliferation of art librarians within it. Underlying this was a perception of a vast and diverse community of art information users -- not just scholars and museum curators, but also professional artists and designers, art students, and not least, members of the public -- people who are not art specialists, but who have the capacity to be stimulated and moved by art, and of whom it has been said (I believe by Ananda Coomaraswamy, though it has been attributed to Eric Gill): The artist is not a special kind of person (we might disagree with that!), everyone is a special kind of artist.
Since the late 1960s and early 1970s we have come a long way. At a first international conference at Brighton, England, in 1976, art librarians committed themselves to create an international umbrella organisation; for a while an autonomous "ARLIS International" seemed possible, but then we chose instead to take advantage of IFLA's worldwide framework and hence the formation of what is now the IFLA Section of Art Libraries. It may be worth noting that although the Section is part of IFLA's Special Libraries Division, it is in the nature of IFLA that participants in IFLA Conferences find themselves mingling with librarians of every kind from every part of the world: this is a context in which a narrow perspective simply cannot be sustained. Clive Phillpot's challenging, seminal paper, "The social role of the art library", was, he tells us, stimulated by a "collision of ideas arising from four papers delivered at the first plenary session of the IFLA Conference of 1983. (footnote 3)
A major role for the IFLA Section of Art Libraries had to be to encourage the development of more regional, national and local art library associations, whether formal or informal; this has happened and is still happening. What is especially interesting and encouraging to observe, I think, is that this process, is helping art librarians to get together with other art librarians, and with different kinds of art librarian, in their own country. For example, in Denmark, ARLIS Norden -- which represents all five Nordic countries -- has provided a framework in which art librarians from public libraries who formed a dynamic group, Kunstfaggruppen (a section of the Danish libraries association), in the 1970s -- and art librarians working in museums, are beginning to work together for the first time.
Of course, we have come together in order to work together, and in this we have been greatly assisted by undreamt of developments in information technology. On the one hand e-mail and electronic discussion lists, notably ARLIS-L which, although for reasons which no-one seems able to explain I cannot use myself, I recognise to be a major international art librarians forum, have facilitated communications between us. But also, networking of catalogues and databases are helping us to link art libraries of all kinds into combined regional, national, and international resources.
What of the future? Looking around me today, I see art libraries struggling with too little money, or being absorbed by larger bodies, and art librarians posts being diluted or lost. And yet art librarianship is flourishing. I truly believe that we have created something which is impregnable and unstoppable, and I think the reason why it is so strong is that it is so broad and wide and deep. I want to say three things about our present as the foundation for our future:
First, that the framework is now and indeed has been for some time strong enough to accommodate any amount of diversification and subdivision and to hold the parts together. I recall that some years ago Wolfgang Freitag expressed grave worries regarding the splitting off, as it seemed to some art librarians, of a separate Visual Resources Association. I shared those worries at the time, but I now beleieve that we have created a framework within which different groups can go their separate ways and yet stay together. (footnote 4)
Secondly, I believe our strength is such that we need have no worries about opening our borders. It is already happening. Indeed, through these last 25 years, art library associations have admitted as members people other than art librarians. In recent years we have seen groups come into being which consist not only of art librarians but of other art information professionals, groups which have deliberately omitted any reference to libraries, librarians or librarianship from their name -- JADS, the Japan Art Documentation Society; AVAIL, the Association for the Visual Arts in Ireland.
Third, that at the international level we may need to take special care to safeguard and to develop our breadth and diversity, to ensure that we accommodate all countries and all cultures, and to ensure that each is properly represented from its own point of view, while continuing to represent every type of art library and every variety of art librarianship. We should make a point of avoiding domination from any quarter. Now, here I do have some worries. I worry about the relative strength of, for example, Western and non-Western, and male and female, perspectives on the arts, and how they may be represented in art libraries. I have some worries about IFLA, which as a whole tends to attract those who can afford to attend long conferences in expensive hotels, and which therefore favours library bosses, and big libraries, which many art librarians and art libraries are not. I worry about the Art Libraries Journal as an international forum - it is published by a single national ARLIS group which still insists that the Editor must be drawn from its domestic membership. I like the democracy and interactiveness of the Internet, and of ARLIS-L, but it has to be remembered that not everyone - not even every library - has Net access. I worry about the relative dominance of the English language in our international dialogue.
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that we are working towards some kind of "ARLIS International" in the only way we can -- it was never something which could be realised all at once -- using imperfect building blocks, because they are the only building blocks we have. Along the way we are learning that ARLIS International must consist of several components -- conferences, publications, and not least, an electronic dimension -- and we are learning how very difficult it is to be genuinely international (for some of us this has to involve a cultural and perceptual transformation which involves, almost, a renunciation of our own nationality). We have much still to do, and therefore, much to look forward to, but we have achieved a great deal already.
Jane Wright wrote "I must work alone, unknown, serving few, helping less, giving to one where I might feed hundreds." We have recreated art librarianship so that, while it continues to include and to support some whose immediate task is to serve a few specialists, no art librarian need feel alone, and no art librarian need feel that he or she cannot contribute to a wider and indeed a worldwide endeavour for the benefit of humanity at large.
1. Wright, Jane. "Plea of the art librarian." Public Libraries, November 1908, p. 348-349; reprinted in A reader in art librarianship, ed. Philip Pacey. Munich: K.G.Saur, 1985, p.3-5
2. Gibson, Sarah Scott. "The past as prologue: the evolution of art librarianship." Drexel Library Quarterly vol. 19 no. 3, 1983, p. 3-17
3. Phillpot, Clive. "The social role of the art library." A reader in art librarianship, op. cit. (I believe that Clive's text was also published in Art Documentation but I don't have the reference to hand).
4. I first attempted to articulate this view in a paper presented to the IFLA Section of Art Libraries at Moscow in 1991: Pacey, Philip. "The indivisibility of art librarianship." INSPEL
University of Central Lancashire