The World-Classiest Library: ACRL/NY Librarians Tour the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Lauren Kehoe

May 6, 2016

On an overcast Friday in April, fifteen librarians from the NY Metropolitan region visited The Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, many for the first time.  The tour was organized by Mayumi Miyaoka, a member of the ACRL/NY Professional Development Committee and a Reference Librarian/Archivist at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, NY.   This visit was part of a series of tours, put together by ACRL/NY, to unique libraries in New York including a trip to Google and the United Nations.

While The Watson Library is one of twenty-six libraries in the Met, it is the central research library of an institution whose collection of books and periodicals, relating to the history of art, are one of the most comprehensive in the world.  The mission of The Met libraries is to support the research activities of the Museum staff, in addition to serving the international community of researchers.  Despite the prestige, The Watson’s access policy is quite open, permitting anyone “college-age or older” to use the collection, and, what’s more, is the library wants you to visit!  There is a growing digital collection, but the experience of visiting a world-class research institution is not easily replicated online.

After being greeted in the main lobby of the Museum, the group was escorted to the Library and introduced to several staff members and librarians.  Mr. Ken Soehner, Chief Librarian, delivered a “four-minute” history of the Library: as part of the 1870 Museum Charter, an art & archaeology library was to be founded to support the various departments in their research endeavors.  Ten years after the charter was approved, the first library was established.  The collection grew through public and private gifts and endowments and in 1912 the collection had reached its capacity where it was then located, so a new library, a la the style of the Avery Architecture & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, was built in the location where the Watson Library now sits.  In 1959, the library was “raised and carted off to the landfill” (not its collection) and in 1965, with a $4 million gift from Trustee Thomas J. Watson, the current library was erected and the current endowment was established.

In 2015, the acquisitions budget was a staggering $300K (equivalent to 23,000+ books) thanks to the endowment of the book purchase fund.  The scope of the collection is to accumulate research material on all objects, or related objects, in the Museum’s collection.  According to Ken Soehner, it is the largest art history research collection in the world.  Half of the visits and circulations are from researchers outside of the Museum.  Ken also mentioned that a variety of services and programs are offered to the public through the twenty-six libraries, including the Nolan Library’s story time, which had an attendance last year of 15,000 children!  Ken’s parting words to us were that the Library is open and available to any college-age or older individual without having to pay the suggested/recommended admittance fee to the Museum.

After the introduction to the Library, Jared Ash (Librarian for Slavic, Russian, and Special Collections) provided additional detail about the collections.  Approximately 10,000 items are considered rare and are kept in the book cage where not even most of the staff is provided access, and The Watson Library collects more modern art books than MoMA.  The Library also has an off-site facility where materials can be called and arrive within two days of the request.  Jared, and some of the other librarians, stressed how important outreach is at the moment and they are trying to encourage more visitors and researchers to visit the libraries.  Their website will soon be updated and they are embracing social media more (search Twitter for  #metlibrary).  Jared had selected a sampling of items from the collection to demonstrate the variety of materials available.  We were then encouraged to engage with the materials, but we were not allowed to touch them, as only library staff members were able to do that.

Next, Jessica Ranne, Associate Manager of Technical Services & Circulation, gave us a tour of the closed stacks in the two floors below the Library.  Many of the original features are still in use such as a “book elevator.”  However, the Pneumatic System was retired several years ago.  A cadre of staff and volunteers process any item requests and retrieve materials from the two floors of stacks, which are then delivered to the reading room for use.

Jessica then brought us into the Conservation Lab where Mindell (Mindy) Dubansky (Preservation Librarian) gave us an overview of the recently renovated Lab.  The Lab serves all libraries and curatorial departments in the Museum, so they are quite busy!  There were several large machines and pieces of equipment that must do very important things—as well as a photo shoot going on behind a large black curtain—but the most interesting demo was of a custom-made book holder to house some of the Museum’s more fragile and oddly-shaped books.  An intern Kyle Olmon, who also happened to be an established paper expert, designed a modifiable special container for the many items in the collection that did not fit nicely on the shelf.  The staff in the Lab that day was very excited to show our group this design.  After I lingered a little too long in the Lab, I learned that Mindy has a love for the non-conventional book and has recently published a book of her own Blooks: The Art of Books That Aren’t and authors a blog about these kinds of “blooks.”

Our last stop was back in the periodicals room of the library where John Lindaman, Assistant Museum Librarian, had selected a collection of “legacy” information technology items including a keyboard that was only usable with a particular cataloging program and a variety of books introducing the internet to former library staff (most of the items on display had been collected from the desks of former library staff).  As a true librarian curator, John was able to see the value of this kind of collection—even if the value is only to a group of visiting librarians.

The tour concluded with a lovely reception and a photo shoot.  We were repeatedly encouraged to bring our own groups back to use the collection.  It was one of the finest (and classiest) library visits I have ever attended.

Lauren Kehoe is the Associate Director of McEntegart Hall Library at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, NY.  In addition to coordinating the day-in and day-out activities of an academic library, she gets to work with students by providing reference service and instructing several information literacy sessions each semester.  Lauren received her MSLIS from Pratt Institute in 2009 and is very passionate about all libraries big & small, analog & digital, and near & far.  She can be reached at


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