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National Art Library book collections

William Morris, 'A Book of Verse', 1870. Museum no. MSL.1953:131

Title page of 'A Book of Verse', by William Morris, 1870, London, England, UK. Pressmark MSL.1953:131

The National Art Library is both a major reference library and the Victoria & Albert Museum's curatorial department for the art, craft and design of the book. Its holdings fall into two categories: the General Collection and Special Collections.

General Collection

In 1870 the publication of the Universal Catalogue of Books on Art signalled the Victorians' desire to achieve comprehensive coverage of the subject area. Today, development of the collections is based upon a detailed collection policy.

Subjects covered by the Library include those central to the work of the Museum:

  • Prints, drawings and paintings
  • Furniture and woodwork
  • Textiles and dress
  • Ceramics and glass
  • Metalwork
  • Sculpture
  • The art and design of the Far East, India and South East Asia
  • The history of the art, craft and design of the book

This core material is supplemented by literature from a much broader subject field including, for example a strong collection of documentation about architecture. Relevant materials are acquired in most Western European, as well as some Asian, languages. There are no restrictions by date. A wide range of formats is collected, from manuscript material to periodicals and electronic publications.

Prints, drawings and individual photographs are collected by another section of the Word and Image department, of which the Library is part. These and many other works of art on paper not on display in the galleries are available through the service.

The Library's fundamental strength lies in the range and depth of its holdings of documentary material concerning the fine and decorative arts, from many countries and periods. Within that broad spread, there are some subjects that are particularly well covered. The art and craft of the book is represented in the collection of fine and noteworthy bindings, the Clements Collection (armorial bookbindings), the collections of calligraphy and fine printing, and the extensive holdings of 20th-century artists' books and book art. The Library has important collections relating to international exhibitions, including the Great Exhibition of 1851, and of exhibition catalogues of all kinds published by museums and galleries. It is also a major centre for collecting art sale catalogues, with long runs from many of the major auction houses. Contemporary trade literature is actively being collected, augmenting existing collections of such material going back to the 19th century. Ephemeral documentation about contemporary artists is available through the Library's Information Files. The National Art Library's documentary manuscripts collections include letters, account books and other records relating to individual artists and the production and marketing of decorative and artistic objects.

Important 'Closed Collections' include the Dyce Collection and the Forster Collection. For more information, see below.

Special Collections

Items in Special Collections are stored, issued and consulted in more controlled conditions than materials in the library's general stock.

Special Collections contain materials that, quite apart from the text or images that they bear, are rare or unique, or which need to be preserved in their original formats as exhibition objects and specimens of book production. Thus a modern book with a notable dust jacket or with inventive typographical lay-out is as liable to be stored with Special Collections as a medieval illuminated manuscript or a de-luxe printed book illustrated by Matisse.

Most of the Library's Special Collections are currently held in the V&A at South Kensington. The exceptions are the Archive of Art and Design's three Closed Collections relating to Beatrix Potter (the Linder Bequest, the Linder Archive and the Linder Collections), the Renier Collection of childrens literature and most named collections of Childrens Books which are housed in Blythe House near Olympia.

Some types of material held in Special Collections

  • Archives
  • Artists' books
  • Artists' letters
  • Artists' manifestos
  • Books using innovative technology or structure
  • Books with notable dust jackets
  • Calligraphy
  • Children's books
  • Comics and graphic novels
  • Documentary manuscripts
  • Early printed books
  • Ephemera and jobbing printing
  • Fine and noteworthy bindings
  • Fine printing
  • Illuminated manuscripts - codices and single leaf fragments. N.B. The V&A's major collection of fragments are available through the and described in the published catalogues of 1908 and 1923.
  • Illustrated books
  • Modern book and magazine design
  • Typography
  • Writing and lettering books
Henri Matisse, 'Jazz', Paris, Teriade, about 1947. Binding by Paul Bonet, 1952. Museum no. L.338-1948

Henri Matisse, 'Jazz', Paris, Teriade, about 1947. Binding by Paul Bonet, 1952. Museum no. L.338-1948

Closed Collections

The National Art Library holds a number of libraries put together by individuals, as well as collections relating to a single subject acquired at one time. These are preserved as distinct entities rather than integrated into the library's stock. They are known as 'Closed Collections', meaning that they are no longer added to. They form part of the Library's Special Collections.

  • Clements Collection; - heraldic bindings of the British Isles
  • Cole Collection - material relating to, or owned by, Sir Henry Cole
  • Collings Collection - Slavonic art of the 20th century
  • Dyce Collection - strong in the theatre, literature and the classics
  • Fischer Collection - German art from 1900-39, plus a complete typescript inventory of 'Entartete Kunst'
  • Forster Collection - strong in literature and history, with many manuscripts and a large collection of 19th-century pamphlets
  • Harrod Collection - 19th-century illustrated books
  • Hole Bequest - 17th- and 18th-century literature
  • Hutton Bequest - fencing and duelling
  • Jobbing Printing Collection - material from the 1920s and 1930s; also some 1960s material
  • Jones Collection - works relating to art and manufacture; also literature
  • Larionov Collection - theatre and art in Russia and Europe
  • Liberty & Co. printed catalogues
  • Linder Archive - Beatrix Potter (at Blythe House)
  • Linder Bequest - Beatrix Potter (at Blythe House)
  • Linder Collection - Beatrix Potter (at Blythe House)
  • Little Bequest - children's books
  • Osbert Lancaster Collection - comic art, humour
  • Osman-Gidal Collection - photojournalism
  • Pinto Bequest - directories relating to London and the provinces
  • Piot Collection - fairs and festivals
  • Queen Mary Collection of children's books
  • Rakoff Collection - comics and graphic novels
  • Weale Collection - part of the working library of W.H. James Weale, Keeper of the National Art Library, 1890-9

Special material in general stock
Some books that came to the library in the past are now considered rare or worth preserving as exhibition objects. When acquired, however, they were put into the General Collection. Such works today are treated like special collection material and issued and consulted near the Invigilation Desk. All works dating from before 1700 come into this category, as well as, for example, notable 19th- or 20th-century illustrated books.

Catalogue of Special Collections
With the recent completion of the National Art Library Heritage Project, practically all the works held in Special Collections are now described in the Library's online catalogue. New cataloguing standards have been developed since 1987. The recent entries for special materials are substantially more detailed than earlier ones and allow material to be located by a wide variety of index terms.

Published descriptions of Special Collections
Individual items are featured in a range of publications about the National Art Library's special collections.

Requisitioning special materials
Material from the Special Collections is ordered in the same way as that from the General Collection. For more information, Requesting Material in the National Art Library.

Please note that some materials are only issued on an appointment basis. This is clearly indicated in the catalogue record. Readers are asked to write in advance to the Deputy Keeper, Word and Image department.

In the interests of security and conservation, materials from Special Collections are issued and consulted near the Invigilation Desk. A seat number will be allocated by the invigilator when the material ordered is ready for consultation. Readers are asked to sign for each item issued. Readers who find that works ordered are 'Specials in General Stock' will be asked to collect them from the Invigilation Desk and consult them at the desks provided for the purpose.

Hours of consultation
In the V&A, materials from the Special Collections may be consulted between 10.00 and 17.00 (18.00 on Fridays) during Library opening hours.

Material at Blythe House (archives held by the Archive of Art and Design, and Beatrix Potter material from the Linder Bequest, Linder Archive and Linder Collection, Renier Collection) and is available by appointment with the Museum Archives at Blythe House.

Conservation of special materials
Many items in the Special Collections are in a fragile condition, while others need to be kept in a pristine state for exhibition purposes. To protect such material, readers may be asked to use cradles that support weak bindings, to wear white cotton gloves, or to wash their hands before consulting Library items. In some cases, readers will be asked to use photographic copies, microfilms or modern facsimiles instead of the originals.

Photography or scanning of special materials may be allowed but permission must be obtained from the Invigilator at the Special Collections desk.

Full information about our reprographics service on the National Art Library Copying Services page.

High qualty, high resolution digital files for reproduction are available from V&A Images

Suggestions for new acquisitions
The Library is happy to receive suggestions from readers for new acquisitions.

If you discover a gap in our stock and would like to suggest an item for purchase, please contact us online. Alternatively, write:

Acquisitions Librarian
National Art Library
Victoria and Albert Museum
South Kensington
SW7 2RL.

All items currently on order are included in the Library catalogue. The speed at which we can acquire material is largely dependent on availability, particularly in the case of 'out of print' items. However, you will be notified as soon as books you have suggested are available for consultation.

National Art Library opening times

The National Art Library opening times are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday: 10.00 – 17.30 and Friday: 10.00 – 18.30.  It is closed on Mondays and Sundays.

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