From the Elite to the Accessible

By Charles Kreloff

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A visit to the Frick Art Reference Library

Turning off Fifth Avenue onto East 71st Street you walk along a windowless grey stone building until you reach the main entrance. Up the stone steps through shadowed doors you enter a space of dark wood and marble. To the immediate right there’s a small curved reception desk. You give your name to the guard, sign in, and are directed to the discreet elevator. The doors open on the third floor where you’re face to face with a marble bust in a niche. To the left, a dim room with stacks and wooden file cabinets. Right, the main reading room—high ceilinged with painted wooden beams, elegant chandeliers, long communal tables, large, tall windows. In front of an Italian renaissance altarpiece, (which I found out later to be a copy) sits the reference desk with three workstations. You walk up to one of the people seated behind it . . .

Hollywood could not have done it better. If one were to imagine what a private library should look like, it would be this.

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The Frick Art Reference Library—imposing, impressive—but looks would be deceiving. Over the last few years the library has taken strides to be more accessible to the general public. For starters anyone can walk in with no appointment, register, get a library card and go on up to start looking through their collections.

Research librarian Suz Massen, (whose official title is Chief of Public Services), went over the history of the library, some of the services, and how it’s evolved. Founded as an art photo archive in 1920 by Helen Clay Frick, (after the death of her father, industrialist Henry), it was first housed in the unused bowling alley in the basement of the Frick Mansion. The library grew to encompass collections relating to paintings, drawings, sculpture, and prints from the fourth to the mid-twentieth centuries by European and American artists as well as archival materials and special collections pertaining to the history of collecting art.

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The library in the bowling alley, circa 1923

As a separate research facility, (it was not combined with the Frick Collection until 1984), its mission “to encourage and develop the study of the fine arts, and to advance the general knowledge of kindred subjects” served a rarified elite, (including having a dress code until 1989—jackets and ties for men, modest skirts and low heeled shoes for women). Though the library is privately funded, (and thus not under the same financial pressures of a public institution), it now provides services with the general public in mind. There are over 6000 visits a year with 1700 specific research visits. One of the constant struggles is balancing access and usage with conservation. Meeting the needs and expectations of their clients has become more involved and complex including knowledge of new technologies, digitization, online access, social media, etc. With more interest and recognition comes a tradeoff—just a few years ago research queries that had a 24-48 hour turnaround now can take up to 15 days.

Though one could argue that this wealthy, private institution is the height of “bourgeois librarianship” disseminating “high culture” (Cossette 1976), with no need for a broader audience, they realized to have relevancy they have a responsibility to the larger community. As André Cossette in his book Humanism and Libraries points out: “An institution cannot function if it runs contrary to the objectives of the society of which it is an element.” The changes and challenges facing this institution are issues that many libraries face as more and more information is available digitally.

Nothing can quite take the place of being in the physical building, interacting with the staff, and going through the actual collection. The Frick has tried to make that experience as accessible and fulfilling as possible, (though granted they have a pretty great premises to work with), while at the same time making more material available online. Even an institution like this can feel the pressure of the marketplace. The increasing needs of their clients, the demands of more online access, availability of staff, etc. all add to the challenges for any modern library. The Frick’s management and staff have been able to adapt with foresight and flexibility, though with the power and freedom that come with a healthy endowment.

The Frick Art Reference Library

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