In conversation with…

In this August feature we meet David Thompson, Librarian for Arts and Media (encompassing courses in art, fashion, photography, journalism, media and production) at the University of Gloucestershire. David is a librarian, artist, parrot-keeper, and walking canvas. We talk theology, tattoos, and ARLIS catering…


Image credit: Reece Pickering

How did you come to art librarianship?

I came to art librarianship via a slightly circuitous route through all the other fields first… I might be a bit sad, but I wanted to be a librarian from a very early age. My family were regular users of our local library, and I used to trek down with my Mum on a weekly basis just to sit in the reference library in quiet awe of the hushed majesty of its wood-paneled, knowledge-infused Victorian beauty. There was something so inspiring about the idea of being surrounded by so much knowledge, just there for the reading…

I took my first degree in Philosophy and Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, and spent most of my time either sequestered in blissful silence in one of the college library’s tiny attic library rooms, surrounded by the dust and must of ancient philosophy books, or in the echoing halls of the Senate House Library; I even volunteered to sit on the Library Committee. Then, when I graduated, I was supremely lucky to be offered my first job as Library Assistant at Caversham Library, the very library that had first inspired me.

I continued to work for Berkshire County Libraries for several years (including a stint running the mobile library van…!), then spent a year as an Information Specialist with the Civil Service, before finally moving to Cheltenham and starting as a Library Assistant at the University of Gloucestershire (UoG). My boss there was very good, and encouraged me to finally take my masters in librarianship, she then saw me through becoming chartered and taking my first professional librarianship post looking after the Education Collection. I always had my eye on our arts campus, however, and was finally able to transfer to my dream subject area in 2002 when the previous librarian changed career to become our Art History lecturer. He was a hard act to follow: before working at UoG, he’d been Librarian at Goldsmiths, and dealt with the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin…!

Talk us through a typical day for you at work:

I am Librarian for Arts and Media; with ten courses in the media school, as well as the Fine art, Photography, and Fashion courses in the art school, so sadly my day involves a lot less strolling around the art studios and chatting to students than it used to back at Pittville…

Like many librarians of the 21st century, most of my days are desk-based and computer-focused: working with spreadsheets, corresponding via email and writing reports. I do get two desks, however, as my collections are based on two separate campuses, and I like to have a physical presence at each so that my users can still come to speak to me in person if they need to.

Roughly half my time is spent in identifying, and acquiring suitable materials for each course in my remit; some of that is done in close liaison with the teaching staff, by way of reading lists or general discussion as to their ongoing development of the curriculum; the rest is done by keeping abreast of current exhibitions and the publication activity of key publishers, or browsing through publishers catalogues and websites. I then get to spend some ‘quality time’ reviewing and cataloguing the titles once they arrive; I must admit, I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to cataloguing ‘properly’, not least because poring over high-quality art catalogues and monographs is still one of the genuine perks of being an art librarian…

The other half of my time is then spent in teaching and outreach. I spend a substantial amount of time and money each year developing and tending extensive collections that are designed to inform and inspire, it would make very little sense if I didn’t spend at least as much time ensuring that my students have the skills and the motivation to make as full use of those collections as they can. Teaching, encouraging and inspiring is as much my favourite part of the job as gazing at beautiful books; I have never seen my job as librarian as ‘custodian’ or ‘gatekeeper’, my favourite quote (which I wear on a t-shirt for induction-week) is from Socrates: ‘The root of all knowledge is curiosity’, and so I see a major part of my role to be that of enabler and mentor: a kind of enthusiastic tour guide, opening the doors wide and saying ‘look at all of this inspiration and knowledge, just for the taking!’.

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

We have a small collection of artists’ books, there’s only about 200 items, but it’s one of my favourite parts of our collection; many are limited editions, and are the closest we come in the library to owning actual artworks. The way that different artists have reacted to and reinterpreted the idea of what a ‘book’ can be is incredibly inspiring: from photo-documentaries to flick-book animations, concrete poetry to posters and maps, each expresses a unique way to experience, consume, and ‘read’ an artwork in a truly personal and ‘hand-held’ way; I find that genuinely exciting.

What would be your dream acquisition?

It’s nerdy, but I was incredibly proud of being able to purchase the full set of the Grove Art Dictionary when I first became Librarian for Arts and Media; it’s since been replaced by a subscription to the online service (which is infinitely more detailed, and easier to use for my students), but those 34 volumes still look rather splendid on the reference shelves…

We also have a stunning limited folio edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Complete paintings and drawings’ that is just a dream to sit and study, and a lithographic edition of ‘The Trojan wars’, donated by the artist, Paul Thomas .

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

I field daily questions from student artists, designers, photographers and filmmakers, there is probably no enquiry that would ever be ‘normal’…! From ‘which painters painted mirrors?’ to ‘how do you construct a flat-fell seam?’, ‘can you help me find a quote on the sublime?’ to ‘I need a picture of a pig’s heart draped in pink taffeta…’, we’ve had it all, and managed to answer every one; eventually.

It may not be strange, but the most regular request I do seem to get is ‘will you model for me…?’, especially from the photography students: one of their first assignments is on portraiture and subcultures, and they all want to be the one to capture ‘the tattooed librarian’…

Which artist/designer would you most like to meet?

I am fascinated by the work of Anthony Gormley.  I am intrigued by his use and exploration of liminal spaces in both our surroundings and our psychology, and find an incredible dynamic between the immediacy of the human form with which he shapes his work, and the numinous depth with which he imbues those ‘simple’ figures. He speaks about his work with such quiet depth and humility whenever I have seen interviews with him, and I am sure that one could learn a great deal, both artistically and spiritually, in being able to talk with him.

One great tip for people starting out in art librarianship?

Know your subject. Play to your strengths and have no shame in becoming a specialist. Research, and stay up with the contemporary scene.

If you can, it also helps if you can maintain your own creative practice: arts folk are a lot more accepting when they realise you not only know about art, but make it too!

The best benefit about ARLIS/UK & Ireland? 

Definitely the conferences and workshops. I’ve been to dozens over the years and they are always fascinatingly informative (and fantastically well catered…).


Image credit: Georgina Parry

Alexandra Duncan, Central Saint Martins (UAL)