Teaching a Mid-Career Librarian New Tricks: Becoming an Art Librarian

I’ve loved art since my early, awkward adolescence. I remember the first time I saw a Picasso in person. I will never forget feeling lost in a large Rothko canvas. I felt all the feelings and did not know why. It was not for a lack of trying; In middle school, I owned a copy of a book called Abstract Art that I tried to read in fits and starts without success, but lost myself in the photographs of the art works.

I went to Mass MoCA for the first time during the fall of my first year at Smith College and returned several times during my four years. One of my main regrets from my undergraduate years is that I did not take any art history classes; they intimidated me. Nonetheless, I spent quite a bit of my senior year wandering the stacks of the Hillyer Art Library thumbing through art books looking.

Until recently, I decided that poetry was not for me, but really it was because I felt like there was a joke I did not understand. I felt the same way about art history; I believed that I was not sophisticated enough to understand why I was looking at and believed I lacked a facility with language to make critical judgments. It wasn’t for me or so I thought.

I kept going to museums and began to recover from my impostor syndrome. Now, I read poetry and peruse Artforum. 

In December, I became the art history liaison. I embraced the chance to collaborate with the College’s art museum and to select art books. It was also the opportunity to learn about a new discipline with fresh eyes and an open heart.

My journey began in January; I met with Valley colleagues and began to request books and journal articles on the UNC-Chapel Hill’s INLS 749: Art and Visual Information Management syllabus. I reviewed research guides from different universities and colleges to familiarize myself with the main research tools and foundational texts. Finally, I joined the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) and began reading back issues of the association’s journal Art Documentation.

I learned a lot about artist books from reading Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists Books (while there is no singular definition, I can say that Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations is a stellar example). I learned the difference between an auction catalog, a catalogue raisonné, and an exhibition catalog. I made of list of major journals in the field. I followed the College Art Association on Twitter. I began to unpack how the academic study of art differs from connoisseurship. I read histories of the fine arts in the United States. I learned that art history grew exponentially between 1940 and 1960. I read E.H. Gombich’s The Story of Art. 

This is a stack of books I read to learn about being an art librarian next to my stuffed Totoro

I mulled one of the questions posed in Griselda Pollock’s seminal 1981 text, Vision, and Difference: “is adding women to art history the same as producing feminist art history?” I immersed myself in black contemporary art through Kimberly Drew’s digital projects. I bought an amazing book at African-American artists in Los Angeles.

I wanted to do a mini research project about an artist, so after I read Ariel Levy’s profile of Catherine Opie in The New Yorker in March, I requested several books of her photographs, watched a documentary about her process on PBS, and poured over her oeuvre.

I poured over texts aimed at students. The History of Art: A Student Handbook offered a useful frame, “Art Criticism and art appreciation are near neighbors and both are ways into art history.” It helped unpack the difference between art appreciation and art history as a discipline, “art history is the term employed to denote the discipline that examines the history of art and artifacts…the history of art is what is studied and art history is the cluster of means by which it is studied.” I began to understand how art history is “about a historical process.” I discovered that there are many research methodologies for students to pursue from comparative analysis of different works to social context analysis. I started to teach some research sessions including one on Chinese art.

Caro Pinto and a stack of art books

Above all, I enjoyed myself. I loved reading about art and developing new tools for looking artworks of art more critically. My training as a historian helps contextualize much of what I look at and how I approach teaching students about how to do research, mainly, to make them all believe what I could not believe at age twenty, that the study of art is for all of us.