In conversation with…

In our March feature we meet Duncan Chappell, Academic Liaison Librarian at the Glasgow School of Art. We talk Artists’ Books, Brancusi’s shopping habits and pochoir… 


How did you come to art librarianship?

As with most things of value in life, serendipity played a large role. It wasn’t something I had consciously planned. I studied History of Art at the Courtauld Institute for my first degree, and after my last exam I happened to walk past the library of the London School of Economics (LSE) where they were advertising for a Library Assistant. After ten hugely enjoyable months at the LSE, the post of Archives and Library Assistant at the National Portrait Gallery came up, which helped me marry my new library skills with my interest in art. From there, it was simple matter of gaining a professional qualification before finding myself in my current role at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA).

Talk us through a typical day for you at work:

Because the GSA is such a small organisation, and there are only two professional librarians, we are called upon to do all kinds of tasks and assume many roles. This makes the job incredibly varied and engaging. No one day is the same. It may include helping students with their research enquiries, liaising with academics within the departments, managing our electronic or print resources, developing and teaching workshops, catching up with our SCONUL Graduate Trainee, and much, much more. We often work with students to help them initiate art projects with our collections or spaces for example, which are showcased on our Hatchery resource. Since our 2014 fire, which was widely reported in the press, we have inherited a whole new range of expectations, such as liaising with donors, managing donated stock, and planning for the reoccupation of our restored spaces in 2019. It is often difficult to balance the two sets of expectations that now reside with us.

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

There are so many interesting volumes in our collection that it’s very difficult to choose one above the others. Our Artists’ Books Collection is full of inspiring ‘books’ in all kinds of forms: from shower curtains to bottles of wine. Our finance office took some persuading about the latter when I submitted the expenses claim! And the children’s book with hand-drawn illustration and dedication to the GSA Library from artist Alasdair Gray. And I never tire of the beautiful Art Nouveau aesthetics of our collection of Talwin Morris bindings.

What would be your dream acquisition?

A volume entitled Insectes that was published in 1928 by the French designer Emile-Allain Seguy. Seguy was a master of the hand-stencilling technique of pochoir, which produces volumes of exquisite luminosity of colour. We are really lucky to hold most of Seguy’s known volumes at the GSA Library, which came to us in the library of Glasgow carpet manufacturers James Templeton. They are now almost impossible to buy. It would be a dream to have his Insectes sit alongside the Papillons already in the collection.

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

Where did Brancusi buy his clothes?

Which artist/designer would you most like to meet?

I’ve always felt that Yves Klein would make the perfect guest at a imaginary dinner party, if only for his sense of humour and mischief-making.

One great tip for people starting out in art librarianship?

I mentor CILIP Chartership candidates and the biggest mistake I see in new professionals, particularly those who wish to enter art librarianship, is a rigidity in the kinds of roles they are prepared to consider. You are probably not going to enter straight into an academic liaison role in an art school or art history department without first working for a few years in a sixth-form college, or charity organisation, or law firm. If you are dedicated and constantly learning, you will end up where you want to be, but your route will be circuitous.

The best benefit about ARLIS/UK & Ireland?

An organisation like ARLIS thrives or falls on its members. The most useful activity for me is that which develops from the ground up- the communities of practice and the informal sharing of experiences. And of course the Art Libraries Journal never fails to shed light on an initiative or organisation of which, to my shame, I was previously ignorant.


Alexandra Duncan, London College of Fashion (UAL)