Staff working in the National Art Library (NAL) here at the V&A are currently busy digitising a large collection of publications from the very earliest days of the museum, from its foundation in 1852 after the Great Exhibition and the move to our current location in 1857 when it was known as the South Kensington Museum. The variety within this collection is wide, ranging from short pamphlets to extremely comprehensive catalogues of the objects held at the time.
Why are we doing this?
Digitisation has two main benefits to library collections. It creates a ‘preserved’ copy of the item which can be used in lieu of the real physical item, which may be unsuitable for frequent use; it may be fragile or easily damaged for example. It also allows us to increase accessibility to our collections for those who are unable to visit the NAL in person. During the closures throughout the pandemic this became more important than ever, but it is not a new concept within libraries. Digitising material to be freely available can only occur once the work has entered the ‘public domain’ i.e. its copyright has expired. In this case, much more than 100 years has passed since this material was published from the then South Kensington Museum, so we can make it available online. We hope to do this with more of our special collections material in the future, and we welcome suggestions for any which you may particularly like to see!
How do we do this?
The material proposed for digitisation is listed and assessed by library staff – sometimes it may be too fragile or too difficult to make adequate copies of. It is then scanned using special library-grade book scanners and edited and processed on special software before being uploaded to the NAL’s Internet Archive page, where it is tagged with relevant metadata to allow anyone online, not just NAL users, to find our material. The links are then added to our catalogue records to allow readers to see immediately if an online version is available when searching for something. We hope this will be especially useful for our remote readers who are unable to visit the NAL in person. They can then access this material straight away, without having to enquire further. Over time we are boosting existing records by adding links to other material not digitised by us which will also increase accessibility.
Some highlights from the digitisation process so far
Catalogue of the Art Library
This catalogue lists the content of what became the National Art Library – back in 1861, it was a library for the development of artists/craftsmen as part of the Department of Science and Art of the Committee of the Council of Education. Although it is much too vast to check, a lot of this collection is likely still maintained and accessible via the NAL today!
A catalogue of the British fine art collections at South Kensington: being for the most part the gifts of John Sheepshanks and Mrs. Ellison
There are also various guides cataloguing the V&A’s growing object collections. This one covers the very early days of the British fine art collection, established from a generous donation by the cloth manufacturer and art collector John Sheepshanks (1787 – 1863).
A Guide to the South Kensington Museum
This 1865 guide illustrates how the space that the V&A now occupies has developed over time, with maps, floor plans and beautiful wood engravings showing views across the museum that are still recognisable today.
Miniature portrait exhibition: photographs
Events and exhibitions from the time are also captured, such as this 1865 exhibition of portrait miniatures. Although the scrapbook-style is less sophisticated than our present-day exhibition catalogues, there is a certain charm to the cut-and-paste look!
Illustrated catalogue of electrotype reproductions of works of art from originals in the South Kensington Museum
There are some examples of early photography capturing the collections, such as this 1873 illustrated catalogue of electrotypes.
Tables of the results of a series of experiments on the strength of British Colonial and other woods : exhibited at the International Exhibition, 1862, made at the South Kensington Museum by Captain F. Fowke, R.E., with his report on similar experiments in 1855
In between all the usual guides and catalogues, there is the odd, unpredictable item which doesn’t really fit in with the rest. This book contains the results of experiments on various types of wood, such as observing how long it takes to break them – which was likely an exciting demonstration in the 1862 exhibition.
Although the material digitised so far only covers a narrow period in the entire history of the V&A, we can already observe the rapid expansion and establishment of the institution and spot similarities to what is still present today.