Introducing the NAL’s Chief Librarian, Richard Espley

August 25, 2023
Richard Espley © Victoria and Albert Museum

I’ve been Chief Librarian since March, having previously worked at the University of London’s Senate House Library, as well as spending a formative time at the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum. I have spent the last five months revelling in the utterly extraordinary holdings of the National Art Library, and starting to understand and explore our place here in the V&A, in the region, the country and beyond. It is an immense privilege to be leading not just one of the UK’s great libraries, but one of its most enduring civic monuments to the vital role that immersion in the world of art and design can play. 

I am as bewitched as anyone by the indescribable collections and the majestic setting of the library, but for me its chief glory is its availability to all. From the opening of the National Art Library’s reading rooms in the 1880s, its holdings, its fittings and its staffing were designed to ensure universal access to knowledge, information and delight, quickly and without obstacles. The catalogue systems, the content we collect and the means of accessing it are changing, but the library’s commitment to serving the broadest possible audience is not. My role here is to find an affordable contemporary expression of that commitment to accessibility, and in the process to reinvigorate the NAL, not remake it. In the months and years ahead, we will be working hard to improve the welcome we project in person and online, and to better understand and respond to our user’s needs, building our collections and our audience in harmony. We will be striving to share access to our collections beyond South Kensington, both as the Museum enters a new chapter in East London but also online, living up to the promise and the challenge of the word ‘National’ in our name.  

Since starting at the Library I’ve set regular time aside to walk the shelves and to build up my own understanding of what we hold, although the size and breadth of the collections guarantees that it means something different and has a unique character for every member of library staff. It’s an experience few are lucky enough to have, but I’m hoping that my ongoing voyage of discovery around the shelves and safes of the National Art Library, and that of my colleagues here, can be mirrored thousands of times by introducing new readers to the undisputed treasures of the collection, but also the charmingly unexpected items we care for. We owe it to all to better communicate and to share our irreplaceable collections, from Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks to Dickens’ manuscripts, but also to delight people and make them smile at an Edward Lear sketch of himself and his cat admiring a flower (“both represented in strictly accurate proportions”), or the Reverend Alexander Dyce’s collection of 176 seashells. 

Letter from Villa Tennyson, San Remo, to L. Coombe, October 22 1882, by Edward Lear © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I’m also deeply aware of the thousands of readers who rely upon us for their research, for creative inspiration or simply for unlimited access to the immersive power of art, design and performance in a world where such opportunities are reduced and threatened. My gratitude to those readers for demonstrating the critical value of our service by continuing to support us through the pandemic and beyond is matched only by my hope to increase that community. As part of an ongoing programme to engage meaningfully with our users, I’m very happy with our recent announcement to hold a regular opportunity to come and talk to me and my senior colleagues about your experiences of the NAL, and our shared future. In the meantime, we will be continuing to share this fabulous resource with our thousands of readers and preparing to do so with many thousands more.   

1 comment so far, view or add yours


A excellent library and splendid staff hopefully it can hold more talks in the future. Maybe evenings talks about art World ? It’s a fabulous library and important role to have a quiet space within the museum. Especially for people with Aspergers to rest and recover. Excellent blog. Need more like these

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