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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 075-157(WS)-E
Division Number: II
Professional Group: Art Libraries: Workshop
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 157
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

The Art Librarian as Mediator :
The Art of being a Librarian

Petra van den Born
Amsterdams Historisch Museum


Wilbert Helmus

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


Who are we?

We, Petra van den Born and Wilbert Helmus, are librarians working respectively in the Amsterdams Historisch Museum and the Rijksmuseum.1 The holdings of the two libraries reflect each museum's rich collection of art works and decorative arts. Although there are large differences between the libraries, for instance in size (the Rijksmuseum library holds approximately 250.000 volumes while the Amsterdam Historisch Museum holds approximately 20.000 volumes); and in organisation (the Rijksmuseum is a nationally-financed organisation while the Amsterdam Historisch Museum is an organisation financed by the city), we discovered striking similarities.

Our reference desks are situated in the same city, three canals away from each other. We share the same audience: the historians and art historians who are the museum's curators, as well as museum users from the national and international scholarly community and the general public. We consider it our task to mediate between all the different resources available for the benefit of the user. This is our 'core-business'.

The catalyst for this paper is the last part of the theme question for the workshop: Blurring the boundaries: Should art librarians work with archivists, curators, educators, or become more specialized? The part we italicized evoked a common, almost indignant reaction: why more specialized, we have our specialization!

We know from experience as from professional literature (with an emphasis on art historians as information seekers: such as Bierbaum 1996; Brooks Jeffery 1998; Podstolski 1996; Stam 1997), that librarians are usually not the first ones to be asked to track down material and to point out possible leads. Rather than being unhappy about this2, we propose statements to provoke the discussion in order to define and grade our specialisation. An awareness of the definition and validity of reference work in the art library makes it possible to build the right conditions to perform as a 'happy' (that is, communicating, sharing, and questioning with colleagues and others) art librarian.

The work floor

Five days a week behind the reference desk, in the middle of the reading room of the museum library, we literally sit in the centre of the information process. This situation gives us the opportunity to see and evaluate the practice of the information-seeking behaviour of our clients. Who are the clients of our libraries? An often-used categorisation divides them into two main groups: the internal, and the external users. Internal users are the staff members of the museum: for instance, the curators, restorers, educators ea. External users can be identified as (art)historians, students, auctioneers, collectors, publishers and the general 'want to know more about' public. With this division in mind, we want to focus in this paper on the information-seeking behaviour of both categories simultaneously.

Because we share the same audience, we observe similar types of information-seeking patterns. For instance: a visitor enters the reading room, walks directly towards the OPAC, and immediately touches the keyboard. After spending some time in front of the screen, the searcher sighs and leaves the reading room. Nothing relevant was found in the computer, so the visitor concludes that she or he is in the wrong place. Another pattern: a visitor requests more and more books and magazines without giving the impression that she/he is satisfied with the pile of found material. Yet another pattern: the visitor walks directly to the desk and asks for an answer on a research question, expecting the librarian to be a 'walking encyclopaedia'. A rarely observed patron is one who instead walks directly to the desk to ask for instructions on how and where to find the needed information. However, as art librarians, the mere observation of our clients is not our specialisation. The question then, is:

What exactly is our specialisation?

Because of our observations and experiences on the work floor, we know our clients and recognise their information-seeking behaviour. Stimulated by all kinds of electronic developments, it seems easy for everyone nowadays, especially the young ones, to find information. Will our rarely-observed client, the one who asks how and where to find the needed information, only become more rare?

Research about how professionals look for information (Scholten 1994:12; Stam 1997:28-29) modifies this point of view. Despite the current option to use both traditional (books, magazines etc.) and modern (electronic databases) library facilities, most professionals really use the following information sources: first, colleague's, literature which they have in their own bookcases or in their own department; second, personal archives, and third, the library. In this order. Familiar surroundings and confidence make sources of information obviously reliable and sufficient. Personal contacts are highly valued as information sources. The art of being a librarian is therefore to be performed on the stage of meeting the patron, building trust. It is to become a personal contact in order to get involved in the fairly private information-seeking activity. How to do that is our specialisation.

Some ingredients are self-evident: education, knowledge, expertise and experiences (Staffing 1995:28). Unnecessary ingredients (because to ideal to be existential, see Podstolski 1996: 5-6) are: complete overlap with the knowledge of users, and trying to be both librarian and art historian and historian and curator and archivist and architect etc. Less evident but necessary ingredients are: the know-how to estimate, the enjoyment of detective work, the willingness to travel the 'whole electronic world' to find out more, and an approachable attitude.

To perform well, that is, to be an art librarian that is like a spider in the web of bibliographical and nonbibliographical information, certain conditions have to be met. To mediate effectively between the diverse collection and the users, ánd to mediate within the specialities of users (vital in a museum where the most (un)usual specialists come together) an attitude of sharing and dialogue is a must. From all sides. Sharing and dialogue must flow from the users towards the librarian, from the librarian towards the users, and last but surely not least, between the library staff members themselves (if there are any).

In the context of IFLA/ARLIS, we focus on the communication in this last group, the library staff, and wonder... What do we talk about in our staff meetings?

A lot of communication relates to the administration, development, organisation, support and maintainance of the library collection. This is normal for a department, like the library, with the objective to support the parent institution, the museum, with an adequately sized collection. But how much time in those meetings is spend on the guidance and assistance of our patrons? Do we, as library staff members, share the subjects asked by our hybrid audience: that is, by the curatorial staff and the support services, the under-graduates and post-graduates who are unable to find everything in the university library, the members of the public who might want information on anything from the history of an displayed object to an opinion on a book?

In order to guide and inform audiences it is essential to share possible links between their specific information needs and the collection. Talking about the subjects that keep our users busy, will not only improve the reference work. It will also focus the selection, acquisition and cataloguing. And, not to be forgotten, it will benefit the teamwork.

The challenge is now not anymore to be a 'walking encyclopaedia' (don't even try it!), but to take time to share information in order to become a 'lively link'.

The real art librarian, we conclude, is one with the capacity to mediate and exchange: specialised in actively guiding clients to relevant sources, bridging gaps between clients and sources and clients and specialists. In other words: a personal agent of information exchange with whom archivists, curators and educators should work.


1. Art historians, curators, educators consult first, colleague's, literature which they have in their own bookcases or in their own department; second, personal archives, and third, the library. As long as art librarians are not among the first ones to track down material and point to possible leads, we have missed our goal as librarian.

2. Instead of competing on the level of art historical knowledge, the art librarian should influence the information-seeking behaviour: the art librarian as info-therapist.

3. Being flexible, communicative, open minded, interested, approachable, are attitudes which must be considered as a staffing standard for art librarians; none of the other specialists will have those attitudes as a condition for performing their profession.

4. Information-seeking behaviour is not specialist-specific; the way information is used is specialist-specific.


1. During the preparation of this workshop paper Petra van den Born was appointed to the post of Chief, Reference Services at UNESCO's Central Library in Paris.

2. 'we art librarians rarely admit publicly that we disapprove of the bibliographical behaviour of art historians. They don't know about, let alone consult, our favourite bibliographies. They certainly don't consult us! Instead they consult one another in several ways (). We are a last resort and none too happy about it'. (Marmor, 1995:26)


Bierbaum 1996
E.-G. Bierbaum, 'Museum libraries: the more things change...', Special Libraries 87(1996)2, p. 74-87

Brooks Jeffery 1998
R. Brooks Jeffery, 'Librarians as generalists: Redefining our role in a new paradigm', Art Documentation 17(1998)2, p. 25-29

Kuny 1998
Terry Kuny, New Technologie, New Services, New Directions for Librarianship?, Ottawa 1998 (URL: http://archive.ifla.org/IV/ifla64/kuny.pdf)

Marmor 1995
Max Marmor, 'Baedeker and Art Bibliography', Art Documentation (1995)winter, p. 25-26

Podstolski 1996
Max Podstolski, 'What does it mean to be a 'professional' art librarian?: 'existential' versus 'ideal', Art Libraries Journal 21(1996)2, p. 4-8

Staffing 1995
'Staffing Standards for Art Libraries and Visual Resources Collections', Art Documentation (1995)winter, p. 27-32

Stam 1997
Deidre Corcoran Stam, 'How Art Historians Look for Information', Art Documentation 16(1997)2, p. 27-30


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