Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago

Last Friday I was lucky enough to join other reference librarians from Zone 1 of the Metropolitan Library System for a tour of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago. Susan Augustine, head of user services at the Ryerson Art Library was our guide, taking us behind the scenes to see the conservation lab, the pamphlet files, technical services, the stacks, and the archives.

I was impressed by the wealth of the collection. The Ryerson is the second largest art library in the country after the library at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Augustine said the collection of periodicals is outstanding, noting that nearly every title in The Avery Index to Architecture Periodicals is held by the Art Institute's library. About 1000 books are added per month, mostly on art or architecture. Most titles come automatically through approval plans, of which two plans are U.S. and ten others are foreign. Most of the library collection is not in English. While most of the acquisitions are current materials, there is also some retrospective purchasing, especially in photography and Southeast Asian art. Another distinction is that the library is a research institution, not a rare books library; the library does not acquire rare and historical items just to have them.

The primary mission of the Ryerson is to serve the curators, who have many privileges that other users do not. Curators influence the acquisitions, get extensive reference help, and can visit most of the restricted areas of the library. They even get to check books out for a year and renew them annually. Augustine said that the curators do have to account for the books during the annual inventory, when library staff visit each department office to "see the books."

In recent years, service to other users has expanded from researchers and museum members to the general public. Unfortunately, the economic downturn has struck the library, which has reduced its public service staff greatly. The library is now open to the public during museum hours on Thursday and by appointment for limited hours on Wednesday and Friday.

As a librarian, it was fun to see the library's pamphlet file still exists. The Ryerson collection pamphlet file has everything from clippings and articles to letters from artists and promotional publications for gallery shows. Augustine said that for obscure artists, the pamphlet file sometimes has the only information that can be found. This valuable resource is in a locked room, protected for the ages.

Upstairs from the library reading room, accessible only by private elevators, we saw workrooms for the Art Institute's archives. The museum is accepting a limited number of collections from artists and architects with Chicago connections. Also, the museum has a second archives dealing with its own history. Both of these archives departments are up to their necks in documents and unusual items, including woodcut blocks, wine bottles, and posters. Only a patient person not troubled by piles of papers could work for such a service!

Our hour and a half passed quickly. My concern is that the library somehow ride out its funding shortfall and then restore more public services. It would be a shame to have such a great collection closed to the many people who would enjoy using it.

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