At work with: Marc Ward, National Art Library

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The National Art Library is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s public reference library, and also serves as the V&A’s curatorial department for the art, craft and design of the book. During a recent visit I was excited to discover the collection includes an ever-growing number of magazines. We start this week At Work With Marc Ward, the man responsible for that collection of comics, journals and magazines.

National Art Library interior (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Where are you today?
I am sat at my desk in the Library’s open plan office on an upper floor of the V&A in South Kensington, London.

What can you see from the window?
Our office faces north so I should be able to see the Museum’s Henry Cole Wing as well as the buildings of the Science Museum and Imperial College. At the moment, however, our windows are boarded up with sound-proofing to muffle the noise from the works on the new Exhibition Road entrance and galleries. Fortunately, however, we have skylights. I can tell you what the weather’s doing.

Are you a morning or evening person?
My concentration seems at its best late morning/early afternoon.

What was the first magazine you remember enjoying?
Sixth form was the earliest time I can remember regularly reading magazines (if we’re not counting comics). I enjoyed The New Scientist and particularly The Listener. I loved the latter’s eclecticism, a quality echoed by many a new independent now. It was right at the tail end of its run so I probably missed its best but I do recall taking its cancellation a little personally.

RATIC
What’s your favourite magazine this morning?

We’ve just bought six issues of a French shoe trade journal from the 1930s, Revue Artistique et Technique de l’Industrie de la Chaussure. Each issue is published in landscape format with an introduction in four languages and contains loose plates of the latest styles. These are taken from drawings rather than photographs, are hand-coloured with a leather sample appended to a few. Frankly I’m not that in to fashion, as my picture bears out, but I cannot help but be impressed by these.

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I’ll give a mention too, if I may, to the subscriptions that remain favourites issue after issue. Eye and Novum are handy for keeping up with magazine design of course but they both feel very welcoming. I also look forward to new issues of Illustrators.

Why does the V&A collect magazines?
In common with many of the Museum’s collections, the Library can trace its history back to before the Museum’s foundation in the 1850s. Our origins lie in the Government School of Design in the 1830s. The ethos then was improvement of art and manufacture through instruction and example. Fundamentally this remains the case. Books, journals and, yes, magazines contribute towards this.

We are a reference library open to all and our reader base is indeed quite broad. Prospective readers just need proof of identity and address.

How many magazines are in the collection, what are the criteria for inclusion, and how many are added each week?
I don’t have a figure for magazines only but can tell you that the Library catalogue has over 20,000 serial records. On average I receive around 60 periodical issues per week.

Our subject area of the fine and applied arts is the main consideration for acquisitions. Subscriptions are the best way to collect periodicals about art and, yes, the goal is to assemble as complete a run as possible. Of course there is more published than we can afford so we also have to factor in existing coverage in our collection and whether material is already held in other libraries. We give weight to anything that complements the Museum’s collecting interests.

There are also magazines, whose content might be considered out of scope, that we want to acquire as examples of contemporary publishing. A subscription is not appropriate for these so we buy single issues. I select these through articles I might see in the design press or on sites such as magCulture. There is no substitute for flicking through magazines first hand, of course, so I also pay occasional visits to newsagents and bookshops. Once in a while there is an opportunity to make a major purchase, the last such was the Archizines collection.

Last week Google CEO Eric Schmidt expressed his concern about future digital archives, leading many to conclude print was better for now. How do you look after the magazine collection?
It is not a new concern. For any collection there is the worry of permanence. How long the collection itself will survive and whether it will continue to be valued and so preserved. At least with paper you do not have the additional concern about possible obsolescence of your reading interface.

In the last few years we have moved a lot of our academic journals to online only. The pressures on physical space being our most urgent driver. This might be new for us but science titles are now well established in this format. So, although I am by no means complacent about archiving, I do have the comfort that a lot of work has been done by academic publishers in concert with national libraries. I think, however, that newsstand publishers are only just beginning to consider this question.

An interesting upshot of this is that the ephemeral nature of the Web is often cited as one of the inspirations for the birth of independent paper magazines.

The problem paper is that made from wood pulp rather than rags introduced with the mechanisation of publishing in the nineteenth century. You will be familiar with the way newsprint and mass market paperbacks yellow with age. That is a consequence of the acidity of the paper itself. Over time the paper becomes more and more brittle and will crumble away. Treatments are available but they are expensive. We have excellent conservators in the Museum but they have limited time. Often the best we can do is to slow the paper’s deterioration using acid-free storage. Ultimately in these cases digital archiving may in fact offer greater hope.

I should say that publishers are well aware of this phenomenon which is why academic and prestige books are produced on acid-free paper. Good quality paper lasts very well so long as you treat it with care, hence the popular stereotype of the stern librarian! Some of our early printed books look very good for their age.

What are you most looking forward to this week, and what are you least looking forward to?
Other than talking to your good self this is not a particularly exceptional week for me. My time will be split between ordering, processing and cataloguing new acquisitions; helping out with our public services by working on the reading room counter or retrieving orders and answering written enquiries. I will be doing some reading to keep up with latest developments and, of course, there’s contributing to planning and meetings.

It is the points of the week where systems do not quite work as they should that provide most of my irritation. Our library catalogue generates claims for late or unfulfilled orders and I never look forward to reviewing these. Librarians are collectors on someone else’s behalf and collectors like completeness. Suppliers are not always sympathetic.

I certainly cannot complain too much. I am well aware of the fortune of my situation. I buy magazines and comics for a living! It’s the pleasant minor surprises of the week that I look forward to the most. That title I ordered a while back arrives and looks even better than expected. The new issue of such and such focuses on a particular interest. Hand in hand with that, unfortunately, is the realisation that I cannot possibly read all we receive.

vam.ac.uk/page/n/national-art-library

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