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The Reading Room

My office window opens to the the library reading room here at the museum, a space that many would agree is one of the stellar places to be in the museum. My understanding is that Philip Johnson, when designing the museum's expansion which opened in 2001, took special interest in getting this room just right. I think he succeeded. The room is paneled in book-matched Burmese teak, meaning that each veneer panel is a mirror of itself, essentially resulting in walls that are covered with the opened pages of books. The space offers soft, enveloping lighting from its arched ceiling with a complement of accent lighting at its edges. It is expansive without being overwhelming. It offers a quite and reflective environment for sustained contemplation. It is a room that is, in short, inspirational, as any effective reading room should be.

Today I pay tribute to this wonderful space by sharing these pictures taken this afternoon. I hope you'll come by and enjoy the space in person.

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Unpacking My Library

Recently I ran across a fascinating project, Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books, produced by Urban Center Books and the Municipal Art Society of New York. The project is a series of exhibitions and book that investigates the personal libraries of some prominent architects in the city. Quoting from the Web site's blurb about the forthcoming book:

What does a library say about the mind of its owner? How do books map the intellectual interests, curiosities, tastes, and personalities of their readers? What does the collecting of books have in common with the practice of architecture? Unpacking My Library provides an intimate look at the personal libraries of fourteen of the world’s leading architects, alongside conversations about the significance of books to their careers and lives.

Photographs of bookshelves – displaying well-loved and rare volumes, eclectic organizational schemes, and the individual touches that make a bookshelf one’s own – provide an evocative glimpse of their owner’s personal life. Each architect also presents a reading list of top ten influential titles, from architectural history to theory to fiction and nonfiction, that serves as a kind of personal philosophy of literature and history, and as advice on what every young architect, scholar, and lover of architecture should read.

I find that I think a lot about the personalities of libraries. Unlike a library amassed by a single person, institutional libraries like the Carter's bear the the influences of many individuals over the course of their development: librarians, staff, and many others. They also reflect the various projects the institution has tackled over the years. Collections such as ours also grow through gifts and on several occasions has taken in whole personal libraries (one big example is Eliot Porter's library). It's clear that many people can claim to have made a mark on the collection. It's an amalgam of all these influences. The point is, the Carter library has a personality, complete with idiosyncrasies. It is a unique and dynamic organism, and that's a part of what makes it such a treasure.

Work Beyond the Reading Room

If you are one of the patrons of the Amon Carter Museum Library, all that you might see is the reading room, and one of the fine library staff members helping you find what you need in the library. The reading room is a great space - quiet and welcoming – designed by architect Philip Johnson. At the east end are the periodicals which the Carter subscribes to, along the south wall are the major reference works in the library (catalogue raisonné, etc.) and the Bio Files. On the west wall are the study alcoves, and the north wall displays the collection of exhibition catalogs held at the Carter. It’s a wonderful space, and as I said, really the only space that most patrons of the library see. Behind the scenes, though, it’s a different world.

For example, how does the Carter decide what resources to add to the library’s large collection of over 100,000 items? What path do these items take from the bookseller to the stacks? What happens when a patron requests a book? What about interlibrary loans? Also, the library is just not books, periodicals, and ephemera. It is also a repository for some very important archives – such as the archives of Laura Gilpin, Eliot Porter, Karl Struss, and important records relating to the history of the museum itself. What of the archives, then?

My mind was filled with these questions when I began volunteering at the library here at the Carter. My name is Jason Dean, and I am a student at Syracuse University earning my Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. Before I started my library science program, I contacted the Carter library about providing me some practical library experience. So far, working at the Carter has provided me with a wealth of experiences and knowledge, some of which I would like to share with you – and I might even be able to answer some of those “How does it work” questions I posed above.

For my first post, allow me to give you a brief description of how the museum selects what resources are purchased and then added to the collection. There is a document that states a broad collection development policy. It's the tool that guides what the library collects. Though it offers some solid boundaries, it must also be flexible enough to accommodate new subject matter that may relate to new art entering the collection or special research projects. Any of the staff members (including curatorial staff) can propose the purchase of a book, but the final “veto” power rests with Sam, as he is the library director. Individual librarians have influenced the document as well, with their interests and their quest to expand the collection of the library in a meaningful way. These purchases can be sourced from any number of businesses, from ones we use every day – Amazon – to specialized rare book dealers. If an item falls within the areas outlined by the collection development policy, then the subject is researched to see if it will fit into the collection of resources we have here. If it does, then the item is purchased and integrated into the collection.

We also receive a great number of books which are gifts, or books that are sent in exchange by other museums. When the Carter exchanges books with another museum, generally we will send them exhibition catalogues they are interested in, and in exchange they will send us the books we want that the other museum has published. As I mentioned above, we have some very generous donors that give books outright to the library frequently. These gifts are recorded, and then they are researched to see if they fit into out collection.

Depending upon the size of the item purchased, it might simply go into the extensive bio files and skip the next step in the process altogether. However, if Sam, Jon, or Mary Jane think it best, the item will go on to the next step in the process.

What happens to the book next? Do we just put it on the shelf and leave it be? This question will be answered in the next post, which will take you through part of the behind the scenes area in the library. I hope you enjoyed this small look into the library, and I also hope you’ll keep checking “The N-Files” blog, as there is some great information about this wonderful library on the blog.


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Come See the "Real" Arts & Architecture

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in design and architecture from the mid twentieth century. One of the most influential periodicals of the period, Arts & Architecture, is enjoying new exposure as a reprint published last fall by Taschen. This reprint reproduces all the issues from the first ten years of the magazine, 1945-1954. The publisher plans to offer another edition that reprints the final issues through 1967 this fall. This monumental project has received a healthy amount of press coverage and is noted in the recent issues of Wallpaper (Feb. 2009) and Modernism (Winter 2008/2009). You may have also heard about the Birth of the Cool exhibition appearing now at the Blanton Art Museum in Austin which focuses on art, music, and design from the mid twentieth century in California. Arts & Architecture figures prominently in the exhibition and accompanying catalog.

The Carter library is the proud home of the original edition of the magazine and offers very nearly the entire run from 1948 through its final July/August issue in 1967 --- all issues as they originally appeared. Anyone interested in art and design from the period --- not to mention other related political and cultural topics --- would delight in flipping through our holdings. You're guaranteed to make some discoveries. The March 1961 issue shown in the cover scan below appeared the same year that the museum opened. The second scan of the title page of the final issue in 1967 shows that the prescient theme of the issue is water, a topic very much on our minds in 2009.

Beyond the Galleries

There are many discoveries to be found at the Carter beyond what is displayed in the galleries. Often the art works are only the tip of a much larger collection of material, much of it textual and documentary. It is this assortment of letters, diaries, books, clippings, and sketches that make research and analysis of art beyond its immediate visual appeal possible. These items illuminate the artist's intent, the work's context in time and place, variations, and changes, without which much of an artwork's tale is lost.

The recent Carter publication, Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster, is a fine example of the art research that is possible with supporting documents. Betsy Fahlman and Claire Barry approach Demuth's work from differing angles but both are able to elaborate upon their discussions of context and content because of their use and study of his archives.

Take a moment during your next visit to the Carter to use our Library and Archives and see what you can discover.

The Museum, the Books, the History

There is a shelf in the Amon Carter Museum library. Upon this shelf rests the history of the museum in book form. Over 180 books representing almost fifty years of museum publishing history are now conveniently located for perusal. From the first exhibition catalog published in 1961 featuring Remington and Russell to the newest book from 2008 entitled The 100 Best Illustrated Letters of Charles M. Russell, the complete history of the museum lies before my very eyes.

But who am I, and why am I blogging for the library? Well, I’m a volunteer. It’s been my job for the past few months to bring this project together, and who knew it would be such a massive undertaking?

Under the guidance of library director Sam Duncan, I began to comb through the large bibliography of Amon Carter publications in order to determine which books the reading room lacked. The quest of locating staff willing to give up their copies in order for the library to have a comprehensive book set then began in earnest. (It was exciting to see the collection grow, slowly filling the space of four large shelves.)

Sam also wanted to make this special book collection more visible. So, he and archivist John Frembling moved the books to a more accessible shelf. Now the books are prominently displayed and shelved in order by publication year. It’s interesting to compare the subject matter as well as the number of books published per decade. I also enjoy comparing the graphic design of the early books to the more recent volumes.

I continue to work in Access on a bibliographic database that will eventually be available on the museum website. The data entry has been one of the more time consuming aspects of the project, as I systematically record the details of each book. I look forward to the day when my work will be accessible by museum staff and the public alike.

I hope you’ll come in and visit the library and explore the Amon Carter publication collection. Feel free to look through the books and make your own conclusions about museum exhibitions through the past five decades or make discoveries of your own. Maybe you’ll see someone, typing away on a laptop with big stacks of books piled around them. That will be me, Dana Harper, volunteer.

Four Jolly Clowns, Mother Hubbard's Party, Elastic Locomotives, Sliced Birds, Grace Hoops, and a Roaming Turtle

An out-of-state patron recently discovered that the library owns a rare 1888 wholesale toy catalog produced by Selchow & Righter in New York. Upon examining the item, we discovered what a fascinating cultural record it is. The catalog certainly speaks about a different time in the United States, but the mix of toys and amusements in the catalog--some benign and some offensive from our current perspective--seems to say that the impulse to entertain ourselves is timeless.

We decided to share this magical publication more widely by digitizing its full contents as a PDF file. It's a large file, over 20 megabytes, so be patient if you have a slow internet connection. The file is searchable by keyword. Enjoy and please share any discoveries you make.

The library has many other similar catalogs in the collection, and our holdings range from original to reprinted items to material that discusses commercial catalogs.