We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more

Transforming the Conservation library

Laura Jiggins & Michelle Murray
Conservation Administrators

The V&A Conservation Library houses nearly 3000 books and is a valuable resource for conservators, students, interns and placements working within the Conservation Department. It can also be accessed by other members of museum staff and visitors from outside the Museum by appointment. The library has an international reputation for being a model for the provision of conservation resources and it has recently been visited by conservation professionals from India and Australia specifically for the purpose of conducting research into how it achieves such high standards as a conservation library. Not only is the library a borrowing facility, but it is also a quiet place to read or study.

In May 2003, the Conservation Administration Section moved to a new location within the Museum taking the Conservation Library with it. This inevitably caused considerable disruption to the organisation and structure of the library. In the months following the move Conservation Administration ensured that the library remained accessible despite the fact that, due to staff shortages, it was not possible for admin staff to oversee every aspect of its functionality. The library's original lending and returning system became increasingly 'self service' which allowed conservators easy access to resources within the library without time consuming procedures.

However, there were crucial consequences in that after a time, there was no way of monitoring the whereabouts of the books. Before long it became impossible to track whether a book was in the library, on loan to another member of museum staff or to the National Art Library (NAL), or even if it was missing altogether. This rendered the library database inaccurate and therefore redundant.

During the closing months of 2004 Conservation Administration, headed by Tim Carpenter, identified that the library was in need of a reformation that would be based on the following principles: That the library would function as a valuable resource for Conservation Department staff; that it would be managed within the Conservation Department by administration staff; that it would be a controlled operation to ensure continual high standards of efficiency; that its contents would be relevant to the conservation profession. The Library Committee was set up to agree these principles and action the positive re-direction of the Conservation Library.

The committee consisted of five members of V&A conservation staff: Tim Carpenter, Information Systems Manager; Michelle Murray and Laura Jiggins, Conservation Administrators; Albert Neher, Head of Furniture, Textiles and Frames; Harriet Standeven, RCA/V&A Conservation Tutor. The advantages of handing the Conservation Library over to the National Art Library, also located within the V&A, were considered as it would mean that the books could be accessed by a wider audience.

However, this would mean that the books would not continue to be housed within the Conservation Department and conservators, students, interns and placements would no longer benefit from easy access to the valuable information and resources that the library has to offer. These implications would contradict the agreed principle that the library should be a resource for and managed by the Conservation Department. Conservation Administration therefore decided to treat the need to reform the library as an opportunity to initiate the extensive re-structuring, updating and promotion of the library so that its potential as a valuable resource could be reached and maximised within the Conservation Department.

In November 2004 Michelle Murray and Laura Jiggins undertook the colossal task of auditing the Library as the information held on the library database no longer coincided with the library's tangible state. This was a proactive process which would enable admin staff to identify exactly which books were on the shelves and which books were lost or missing. An amnesty was declared and a request was made for conservation staff to return all books belonging to the library. The Department was also searched for library books that had gone astray. The audit involved scrupulously checking the details of each individual book on the shelves against the records held on the library cataloguing system. The outcome of the audit, which took many weeks to complete, was an accurate list of all books held in the library which has since been transferred onto the library database.

This has restored the function of the database as a tool for monitoring the status of each individual book, whether it be available on the shelves, on loan, or with the NAL. The new system also tracks the name of the last person to borrow each book and the date that it was issued. The database has became a controlled system showing when it was last updated and it has also been given a new look and location within the Conservation Department's network with the aim of encouraging users to try the new system and promote its efficiency. Users can now have confidence in the accuracy of the information that the Conservation Library Database provides.

Having restored the overall function of the library, it is crucial to educate users with regard to procedures for borrowing and returning books and reinforce that it is vital these procedures are followed in order for admin staff to maintain the library's organization and efficiency. New guidelines in the form of the Conservation Library Manual have been introduced to outline the new procedures and are available to staff on the Conservation Department's network. Printed copies are also on hand within the library so that external visitors are aware of the cataloguing system.

The manual is also available on the new Conservation Library intranet site which was created by Laura Jiggins to promote the Conservation Library throughout the Museum and to give staff access to developments within the library. It is the aim of admin staff to continue to build on the already wide ranging material that the library houses to represent all areas of conservation and support the RCA/V&A Conservation course. The new intranet site therefore has facilities so that staff may request the purchase of particular books for the library's collection.

The audit also revealed over 100 volumes which had been added to the library by staff over time but had skipped the process of being allocated a catalogue number and recorded onto the database. These books were therefore isolated during the audit and on completion, the process began of gradually adding them to the database. Once books have been recorded onto the Conservation Library system, they are then loaned to the NAL for cataloguing. This ensures that, should a book that is housed in the Conservation Library be sought via the NAL by an external enquirer or a member of museum staff, NAL staff are directed to liaise with Conservation Administration staff on the enquirer's behalf.

Conservation Administration have therefore worked with the NAL to implement an ongoing cycle of exchanging books that are new to the Conservation Library system but not yet registered with the NAL, for books that have been added to the NAL system and are therefore being returned to Conservation. While a book is on loan to the NAL for auditing its status as such is marked on the Conservation Library Database so that it is clear that the volume will be available shortly. It is only after these books have been returned to Conservation that they can be made available for borrowing. This long process of cataloguing the unrecorded books that surfaced during the audit is now reaching completion. However, updating and improving the library's existing collection of books and also Conservation Administration's associations with the NAL are ongoing processes.

The Conservation Library now functions according to the agreed principles. It remains a valuable resource for Conservation Department staff, ensuring that it is responsive to departmental needs and that the material it houses is highly relevant to the conservation profession. Its operation is controlled and overseen by administration staff and the changes to the Conservation Library continue to be reinforced by all library users. The work of Conservation Administration to re-promote the Library, encourage users to follow procedures, manage and maintain its organisation and resources and instigate developments is ongoing. It is the aim of administration staff that the library continue to operate as a valuable efficient and continually improving resource for all areas of the Conservation Department, the Museum and beyond.