Somehow, despite going to the Metropolitan Museum basically all my life, I never realized before that they have a research library. Walk in through the main entrance, make like you’re going to go up the big main staircase, and then instead go left, and boom, there it is, the Thomas J. Watson Library. It’s a non-browsing library, meaning you have to request the books you want through a request system; there are minimal shelves to walk along and browse to just sort of see what you find. Though, if you’d like to do that, there’s the Nolen Library, on the ground level, accessible via the Education Entrance (over on the left side of the building, not up the big steps on the outside).
The entrance to the Watson Library, in the Spanish courtyard/patio room to the left of the main staircase. Image from Watson Library’s Facebook page.
Most museums, you might be surprised to learn, do in fact maintain libraries. Some are more accessible to the public than others, and some are distributed throughout the museum’s curatorial departments rather than stored in a single place. The Freer-Sackler’s library is collected in one place, for example, but I know the Asian Art library books at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are held within the offices of the Asian Art department, and there’s no librarian or reference desk or anything like that within those offices – just the shelves, directly accessible by the staff. If there is a single central library of the MFA, I’m not sure where it is (turns out it’s down the street, at a completely separate building). I gather the Met has departmental libraries like this as well, but, in any case, the Watson Library is a nice, centralized place where researchers – not just museum staff, but anyone above college-age who registers and is there to do serious research – can make use of books from any of the Met’s libraries.
And what a library it is.
Some of the new sections of the American Wing have computer terminals where visitors can search through the collections, and the libraries. Poking around in there one day, I discovered that the Metropolitan’s libraries have a surprising number of relatively obscure books that I thought I should like to take a look at – mainly stuff about Okinawan painting, which kind of surprised me given how limited the Met’s own collection of Okinawan works, and how limited their history of doing exhibitions about Okinawa. And, I discovered at that time how easy it is to register to use the library, and to make requests for books. I went home and browsed more seriously, went through the online registration process, and electronically requested several books. Within a few days, I had emails telling me my books were ready.
I walked into the library, and spoke first with a librarian at the entrance, who helped me finish the registration process and get oriented with the library. She could not have been kinder, more friendly, more welcoming. Not that there’s anything wrong with the rest of the museum, at all, but as soon as I stepped into the library, it was like a whole different world, where suddenly I was no longer just one of a gazillion faceless visitors, but was now a respected, valued, researcher. All of the staff I spoke to were just unbelievably kind and friendly, beyond any other library, even, that I’ve ever used.
At many libraries, you have to go up to a desk and give them your name and they’ll provide you with the books you requested. Nothing wrong with that. But here, there are a series of shelves, organized alphabetically, and you just pick up your own books. There’s an openness to this approach that implies, I feel, a degree of respect, and of belonging, and of access, that you’re not someone we need to protect the books from, or protect the library from, but rather that you’re someone we trust, and welcome. Just as if I were a regular, or as if I were staff or something. Walk in as if I know what I’m doing, find my name, take down my books, as if I’ve done this a hundred times. There were a number of small side-rooms, and I’m not sure what all of them contain, but one seemed to be the main reading room, with maybe 16 or so nice big wooden tables for you to sit and do your work. There are outlets, free wifi, and access to a wide range of electronic resources, such as JSTOR. This last bit is especially wonderful, as I know that many other museums do not spring for JSTOR or other such resources for their staff, let alone for visitors. It can be very expensive, of course, to maintain subscriptions to such services, and with such a relatively small staff (tens of curators, maybe, at a large museum? Far less, of course, at a much smaller institution), there is a compelling argument to be made that it’s not really worth it, especially when each department, or each staff member, requests or requires various additional databases or resources for their specialty area… There is a certain logic to it, especially when it comes to the financial bottom line, but at the same time, I cannot help but think it bordering on the absurd that museum directors, department chairs, and curators prominent in their field, who need to do research in order to write catalog entries, gallery labels, etc., need to ask their interns & volunteers – college kids with access to JSTOR, etc., through their schools – to get articles and such for them. So, it’s really great that the Met provides this resource not only to its own staff, but to visiting researchers. Anyone who works at any museum in the city that doesn’t provide such resources for its own staff can come to the Met and get access.
Finally, the scanners at the Watson Library are incredible. For me, personally, scanners are so crucial. I do not know yet what I’ll have access to at the UCSB libraries when I start my PhD there next month, but especially when it comes to journals and other non-circulating materials, I love to skip out on paying for photocopies, and scan (for free, and in color) anything and everything I want or need, to be used later. The Univ. of Hawaii Hamilton Library has some pretty nice flatbed scanners over in the Science Wing (aka the Hamilton Addition), which have easy-to-use software that allows you to scan to PDF and create whole PDF documents instead of folders full of JPEGs. But, the scanners at the Watson Library are easily the best, most incredible scanners I’ve ever seen. They use some kind of overhead camera or scanner, so that you place the book open, facing up, which puts a lot less stress on the spine and the pages than squashing it face-down against a sheet of glass. The camera uses a laser-finder to determine the focus, and scans it very quickly, digitally determining how to divide the scanned image into left and right page, and arranging them into a PDF. The system sometimes has difficulty, when the book isn’t centered properly, when it’s too big, or when you’re not holding the pages down flat enough, but otherwise I have never seen an easier-to-use system. One giant button that says Scan, and another giant button that says “Save to USB or Email”, with smaller buttons nearby with an array of easy-to-understand and easy-to-use settings options.
When I had some difficulties with the machines, I asked one of the librarians, “oh, excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you, but..” and she could not have been more friendly and polite about it. There was not the slightest indication that I was in fact interrupting or bothering her – she was so helpful, so accommodating.
All in all, I was blown away by my brief experience with the Watson Library. It is such a wonderful, welcoming, friendly place to work. If only I were more permanently/regularly based in New York, now that I know about it, I would make use of this library all the time. For any of you looking to do any kind of art history research, I very much recommend that if you find yourself in New York, you take some time to check out not just the NYPL or Columbia or whatever other resources you might normally think of first, but to also give the Metropolitan a try. Given how difficult it can be to get into Columbia’s libraries, to request things from off-site at NYPL, or to wait and wait to get things from ILL at your own home institution, the Watson Library can be a beautiful, wonderful resource. And such a nice, relaxing space, too, to feel welcomed and to get your work done.