Balancing the (e)books

May 15, 2024

Many external cultural changes have affected the collections and services offered by the National Art Library (NAL) since we first welcomed visitors to our present majestic Reading Rooms 140 years ago. Among the most visible changes to the space would have been the introduction of large, bulky computer terminals some 40 years ago, to be gradually replaced by a succession of ever slimmer models, and ultimately the daily arrival of dozens of readers’ laptops and other portable devices on our desks. The changes to how libraries collect information and make it available have of course been just as significant, and this was a key question addressed by the 2021 consultants’ report into the future of our library, which stressed that the “NAL needs to focus on providing access to digital resources”.

For many of our readers, their first thoughts of the NAL are probably divided between our beautiful reading rooms (with our helpful staff), and the extraordinary, internationally significant collection of physical books and other items that we hold and make available. For a variety of reasons, we are not strongly associated with digital services, and yet last year, while we retrieved 25,842 physical items for our users, there were 29,067 interactions with our digital resources. The challenge for me as Chief Librarian is to continue to develop and protect both categories of material, to present a unified, complementary collection that inspires our existing users and attracts new readers. I recognise and am seeking to champion the greater accessibility and availability of digital resources, while increasing our spending on the rare and distinctive materials that make up our physical collections.

As part of this finely balanced process, I’m delighted to report that the NAL’s collection of electronic books, which is growing rapidly and now numbers 1300, will be available to all of our registered readers remotely, regardless of where you are. Up until now, licensing restrictions have meant that these works could only be read in the reading rooms, but through friendly negotiation with our suppliers we have been able to change this. Users need only login to the catalogue, as you would to request the retrieval of books, to access the full text. There is also a small but growing number of other resources, including full-text journals, that will become available in the same way.

I am heartened and proud to report that demand for all of our services is steadily growing – usage of our physical books and other holdings has increased by 22% since August 2023, and visits to the Reading Rooms have increased by 21%. We aspire to play a central role in the research and creative lives of an ever-widening audience; without compromising our commitment to curate a unique and invaluable physical  collection, delivering 24-hour access to our ebooks is a further, small but significant step.

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