Written by Brett Levine
Photo by Jerry Siegel
For Birmingham Museum of Art librarian Lindsey Reynolds, there are only two approaches to her job. “You are either an access librarian or a preservation librarian,” she says. “I can’t think of anything better than a book being used to death.” This rather novel approach is what Reynolds, the museum’s librarian for 11 months, brings to the position. “The biggest challenge I face, and that the museum library faces, is simply visibility,” she says. She is correct, but the challenge is one she is meeting head-on. “I’m currently working with my museum colleagues to revise some of the existing signage and to develop additional information that will show where we are and when we are open,” she explains. The very idea of being open regular hours is new. “Generally, most visitors to the museum don’t realize there is a library, and if they do, they may not know they can use it,” she says. “My plan is to do an experiment this fall which will involve being open, without appointment, two days a week.”
To prepare for this new development, Reynolds has spent the summer doing a “stacks shift,” reorganizing the stacks to make it easier to find material. “One of the truly unique aspects of the Birmingham Museum of Art’s library is that we have open stacks,” she explains. “In many museum libraries, books are paged by library staff. Here, simply by using the catalogue, our patrons can basically help themselves.”
The fact that there are such incredible resources, and that people can in general direct their own study and access their own resources is largely unknown except among a small group of patrons, docents, and scholars. More closely integrating the library with exhibitions and curatorial practice may help in this area. “We have one of the largest collections of Wedgwood material,” she says, “so one of the ways I am trying to use the collection is by working with the curator to more effectively integrate this into exhibitions. For example, we have archival auction catalogues that have information on many of the pieces in our collection. It is a way to bring items out of the library and into the exhibition space in a way that may engage readers in new ways.”
One of Reynolds’s other unique approaches is her emphasis on expanding the community’s understandings of what a museum library might acquire. “I just bought two of Lonnie Holley’s LPs,” she says excitedly. “The difference between the library having them and them being a part of the permanent collection is that here I expect them to be handled and played. I’m shopping for a turntable so visitors will be able to listen to the records in the reading room.”
A few feet away sit a stack of zines, small-run, often hand-printed or photocopied journals that have their own subculture. “I’m actually going to Birmingham’s first zine festival this Friday [it was held August 21.] It is a whole weekend of zine culture, hosted by Continental Bakery Downtown and Seasick Records.”
“When I think about where I want the collection to develop I think in terms of ‘democratic multiples’ or ‘artistic multiples’—things that are available, or at least more available, than artists’ usual media,” she goes on to explain. “There are a lot of contemporary artists who incorporate bookmaking into their practice. It’s different than their paintings or sculptures. Art books aren’t typically sold through galleries—they go straight to the public via bookstores like Printed Matter.”
At the same time, she is also well aware of the value of objects and their role in archiving culture. “I’ve been working through the collection over the summer, removing duplicates and items that are open source or readily available online,” she says. “I also like to consider where something fits into the museum collection. You want archival collections to be in the institution that makes sense for them. Where are researchers going to think this material is housed? The Whitney has the Hopper Bequest. The BMA just acquired Frank Fleming’s archive. I’m very excited about that.”
For now, Reynolds is simply preparing for what she hopes will be a surge in visitors becoming aware of the library’s resources and its ease of access. To enhance the experience, she has identified focus areas where she will next turn. “I hope to finish cataloging the rare books room this fall,” she says. There is a rare books room? “It is just one of the many great aspects of the museum and the library collection that very few people know we have.” Hopefully, through Reynolds’s commitment to engaging with the community through education, outreach, and visibility, the museum library will become one of the most well used elements in Birmingham.
Stop in. Have a look at Kara Walker’s or Andy Warhol’s pop-up books. They are right there in the library.