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What Does an Art Librarian Do?

By C. Mitchell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An art librarian is responsible for managing, organizing, and updating a collection of art-related books, often in a museum or non-profit research center. Regular libraries and art libraries are similar, except that all books in an art library relate specifically to some aspect of art. Some focus on artwork from a certain place or time period, while others are devoted to art history, theory, or pragmatics. The art librarian serves as a resource on all of the books in the collection. He or she generally spends as much time answering reference queries and pointing patrons to the right material as shelving and cataloging the works.

The work of an art librarian is primarily reference-based. Most of the books within the librarian’s domain are highly nuanced, and are generally only sought after by a certain sector of the public. In most cases, people come to art libraries to conduct research or to find answers to particular questions. The librarian usually serves as the primary guide. It is his or her job to help patrons find the materials that they are looking for, as well as to suggest resources that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Most art librarians are also heavily involved in the library’s archiving activities. The extent of this work largely depends on context, but most art book collections are far more extensive than can be showcased in reading rooms. Libraries often put their most-used resources out for public display, but keep old, rare, or more fragile pieces in more secure locations. All items in the collection must be documented, however, and must be retrievable. Librarians are usually responsible for sorting, caring for, and cataloging the works.

A great deal of art history and art-related research is often digitized as well. Many of the world’s biggest art libraries maintain enormous online catalogs and databases that allow visitors or authorized members to virtually peruse selected works from anywhere there is an Internet connection. Art librarians must usually be conversant in this technology enough to train patrons on its use, as well as to help researchers find information that may not be readily available in print.

Depending on the setting, an art librarian may also organize and sort donations, provide tours to important visitors or benefactors, and teach research seminars to art history students and scholars. Large libraries and academic settings often boast numerous art librarian jobs, with professionals of different expertise working together on a team. Smaller collections, by contrast, often hire but one or two professionals to provide all needed services.

Some specific knowledge of art is generally essential to success in art librarian careers. Librarians do not need to be artists or scholars themselves, but they usually do need at least some formal training in the discipline. An undergraduate degree in art history or a related field is always helpful. Art librarian training also requires a degree in library sciences in most places.

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