Art libraries and their collections are ecosystems unique to their institutions, forged by institutional priorities, cultural prerogatives and the savvy decisions of their selectors. Through the years, I have worked in multiple collections that reflect the needs of their users and institutions, but seemed to be insulated from factors that create universal collections decisions in libraries. Our status as special and departmental allowed us to curate around areas of interest to our users, while creating a basic and underlying corpus of research materials from which to work. We continued to collect print, for instance, and held firmly on to our bound journals as institutions felt they could withdraw those digitized by such vendors as JSTOR. The large, the unique, the artist rendered, the folio, the moving image—all of these formats and more exist under our roofs to help promote the study of the visual.
So, as subject librarians—how do we engage with collaborative collection development and still maintain a certain level of curated uniqueness within our libraries? How do we collect materials that represent the canon for basic research—or do we even need to do that anymore? These are critical questions that I have asked myself since beginning my job as Head of the Fine Arts Library at the Ohio State University. Here, the Fine Arts Library, our collecting happens within a very large university setting (and we are very large!) but also within the statewide consortium of over 100 institutions called OhioLINK. OhioLINK has a shared borrowing program that enables researchers throughout the state to borrow materials from member institutions, private and public, academic and public libraries. Researchers order them from the catalog interface and receive them within days. For the librarian who selects materials for a subject-specific library, purchasing certain materials must be weighed against their availability in the OhioLINK system. While most institutions allow their selectors to purchase materials as they see fit for their collections, a benchmark of five circulating copies within the system is observed by many. In such a system, materials are acquired based not only on the connection to institutional need and collecting policies, but also the speed at which an order can be placed. Here at OSU, we only acquire one institutional copy—and there are many times that I feel in competition with other subject librarians in area studies, architecture and other departments, to get that one copy for my collection.
While this collection environment closes one door…it opens the proverbial Sound of Music window. What materials do I focus on collecting? Instead of buying trade publications, I focus on exhibition catalogs, from more international venues. I order scholarly volumes on the history of art, and I look for unique purchases, such as small artist archives and artist books. Perhaps in the long run, this kind of work will steer us closer to the being considered a campus special collection. In the meanwhile, I also hope to re-energize our space—which has become more of a study hall with a two-story book stack than and the engaged, active art library that it could be. Working with unique materials, perhaps those that directly connect to teaching strategies, allows me to bring a broader range of students to the art library. Artist books are a wonderful way to explore the narrative, story-telling properties of the book as art medium with first and second year writing students, for instance. Many of these kinds of materials lend themselves to exhibitions, or even better, a Fine Arts professor embedding them within an assignment, and the students bringing their works back at the end of the semester for an exhibit and opening. In this way, the opportunity to collect materials that directly connect to the student learning experience is enriching for me. Rather than collecting what we might use, we collect what we will use.
Exhibition: Not Your Average Codex by Department of Art, Book Arts Course, Spring 2015, displayed in the Ohio State University Fine Arts Library.