In conversation with…

In our April feature we meet Rebecca Daniels, Online Services Librarian at the National Art Library, V&A, and the new ARLIS UK & Ireland Membership Secretary. Rebecca talks to us about her path into art librarianship and what’s so great about being an ARLIS UK & Ireland Officer…

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How did you come to art librarianship?

I knew I wanted to pursue a career in libraries following a two-week work experience placement at my local public library. A few years later I secured a full-time position at the same library and from there moved to a similar role at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA). I’ve always been interested in the arts and remember feeling over the moon when offered this position!

Whilst at UCA, I completed a BA (Hons) in Art History with the Open University followed by an MA in Information and Library Management with Northumbria University. During this time, I also volunteered for the local CILIP committee, an excellent opportunity that widened my professional network. I started my first professional post at the V&A National Art Library (NAL) last September and shortly afterwards began volunteering for ARLIS UK & Ireland as Membership Secretary.

Talk us through a typical day for you at work:

One of the perks of my current job is the variety, each day is different. I participate in all aspects of reader services; retrieval, invigilation and front-line support. Behind the scenes, I hold a range of responsibilities which include administering the library’s online services, curating the V&A Illustration Awards, producing website copy, liaising with the V&A Learning Academy on reading lists and digitising NAL collections. I joined the NAL at an exciting time with our new website and library management system (OCLC) launched in December.

Tell us about an inspiring or surprising item in your collection: 

A colleague recently presented at a V&A Friday Late event and amongst the books selected for display was The language of flowers: an alphabet of floral emblems by Thomas Nelson & Son (1857). A work of cultural importance, this beautifully illustrated floriography describes the symbolism of variant flowers and their arrangements. Flowers presented as a gift during the Victorian era often surreptitiously communicated a message to the recipient.

Hollyhock, white: female ambition 

Honeysuckle, wild: inconstancy in love 

Iris: My compliments, I have a message for you. 

Lilac, purple: the first emotions of love 

Rose, yellow: jealousy

Rose, white; a heart ignorant of love

The collections at the NAL are rich and diverse, comprising a range of different formats from 16th century illuminated manuscripts to contemporary artists’ books and sketchbooks. Just last week a reader requested a book illustrated by Kandinsky that had been signed by the artist himself! Highlights of the collection include three notebooks by Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare’s first collected edition of his works and twelve manuscripts by Charles Dickens. Our book collection webpages are under review so watch this space!

Tell us about your role as Membership Secretary for ARLIS UK & Ireland:

As the first official Membership Secretary it’s an exciting time to be involved; ARLIS UK & Ireland is re-imagining the structure of the society and this role directly assists with that.  I have had the opportunity to partake in Council and Conference Working Party meetings, I have also really enjoyed getting to know the other officers and have been impressed by their dedication to the society’s mission. On a day-to-day basis, I monitor the membership inbox, answer enquiries and process membership applications. This occasionally involves liaison with the Art Libraries Journal Editor and Cambridge University Press. It’s a new role but will develop to include more direct working with the membership- being involved in organising members services and events. I’m looking forward to meeting members in person at this year’s conference.

What’s the strangest enquiry you’ve ever received?

The enquiries received in an art library are incredibly varied, unpredictable and quite often fall outside of the subject area of art. I overheard a colleague once say that “no question is stupid”, it’s true, inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places.

Which artist/designer would you most like to meet? 

I would have liked to have met Angelica Kauffman RA (1741 – 1807). I recently received a copying request for a letter penned by the Swiss painter and etcher. I’m inspired by her drive and self-confidence, she triumphed over adversity to become a successful artist in the eighteenth century. Kauffman was a founding member of the Royal Academy, a well-travelled multi-linguist, a musician and her work was much-admired by her contemporaries.

One great tip for people starting out in art librarianship?

Be curious- ask questions, try new things and consider your mistakes as learning curves or “happy accidents” as Bob Ross would say!

The best benefit about ARLIS UK & Ireland? 

The information profession is continually developing, and roles change. Being part of a network is a fantastic opportunity to build new connections, share (and receive) ideas and keep your sector awareness current.


Alexandra Duncan, Central Saint Martins (UAL)

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