Docent Educator Logo

Getting the Most From Your Library Research

You are giving a tour and a visitor poses a question you can’t answer. The question intrigues you. What do you do? Do you go home and find the topic in the encyclopedia? Dig through old textbooks? Go to the bookstore and buy several new books?

Depending on the kind and amount of information needed, any of these ways can be sufficient. However, a visit to your library could save you effort, not to mention expense! And, the information is likely to be more current than that found on your bookshelf at home.

For purposes of this article, we will discuss examples drawn from the context of an art museum. However, these basic steps for maximizing your use of a library are applicable to libraries in many other types of institutions. Docents who strive to be good learners, as well as good teachers, know that productive and efficient use of libraries is essential.

How You Begin

  1. Gather facts. Go back to the gallery and locate the object in question. What can you uncover right there? Is there a gallery guide or brochure? What can you learn from the wall label? In an art museum, note the name of the artist, the date of the piece, the artist’s nationality, the title of the work, and the medium. If a short descriptive paragraph follows this information, try to pick out any key words that will help you pinpoint your search. Now, you are ready to go to the library.
  2. Ask your question. You can often save time by consulting the librarian first. Explain your question and how it came up. This will enable the librarian to help plan your search strategy. The more specific you can be about why you need the information and how you plan to use it, the more helpful the librarian can be. 3. Set limits. The librarian will also want to know how much information you want. This will determine the number and types of sources consulted. To find a definition, a date, or some other simple fact, a quick look in a dictionary may suffice. If you want slightly more information, an encyclopedia article is a better choice. However, if you want to compare various interpretations of an artist’s work, you may need to peruse a number of books and periodicals.

Getting Specific

Let’s say that you go to the library with two questions. The first is the by Jeannette Dixon & William Howze meaning of the term gesso, which appears on the label of a Renaissance panel painting. The other question arises from a desire to know more about the life of the artist Georges Seurat. Let’s analyze the first question and your quest to answer it.

1 . You are seeking a definition for a term in a specific context. The term could found be in a regular dictionary, but it would not explain the context.

  1. You want to know about the process of Renaissance panel painting, and the materials used.
  2. You want more than a one sentence answer.
  3. However, you don’t want much more than a paragraph explanation or a brief passage.

The sources that fit this description are art encyclopedias and dictionaries of art terms and techniques. The librarian recommends the following reference books: The Artist ‘s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer, a source giving a 12-page article on gesso grounds, with the final two paragraphs devoted to the use of gesso in Renaissance painting;

The Oxford Companion to Art, edited by Harold Osborne, which offers a short paragraph on the term “gesso” with an explanation of its use in the Renaissance and its chemical composition; and

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Art, a five-volume set edited by Bernard S. and Shirley D. Myers. It has a short paragraph definition and references the book The Practice of Tempera Painting by Daniel V. Thompson.

Your second question, concerning the life of Georges Seurat, needs some limiting parameters.

  1. You want to compare different perspectives about the artist and his work.
    2. You have an hour to read between tours every Tuesday.
  2. You want works reproduced in color and detailed biographical information.

If you look under Seurat in the library catalog, you might find a dozen or more titles. Which do you choose? For a comparison of perspectives you can choose two types of sources: a book containing a collection of essays by several authors or separate books by different authors. Since your time is limited, you will probably want to start with a collection of essays. The most recent retrospective exhibition catalog on Seurat would be a good choice because it gives several authors’ views, the research is up to date, and it has excellent color reproductions of the artist’s work. Its bibliography can lead you to other books you might want to pursue when you have more time.

Let’s ask this last question again, but this time using a living artist, Edward Kienholz. You will find only one or two exhibition catalogs listed in the library catalog, so you will need to use other reference sources to locate biographical data and articles in periodicals.

The librarian recommends you start with Contemporary Artists, published by St. Martin’s Press. In addition to an essay on the artist, this text provides a bibliography of articles by and about him that may be available in the library’s periodical collection.

You could also use Art Index or Artbibliographies Modern to obtain citations from the most recent periodicals published since Contemporary Artists went to press. If you want to find more, especially illustrations of Kienholz’ s work, you should see if the library has special “artists files” or a section of “artists catalogs” that may not be listed in the library catalog. Often exhibition catalogs of fifty pages or less and articles from newspapers and magazines are stored in files.

Tour Your Library

The reference librarian will be familiar with the resources and their locations within the library. After using the library a few times, you will become more efficient with your time because you will know the arrangement of things, and you will be familiar with the basic sources on your topic. While every library is different, some features are standard.

The reference desk is the center of activity. It is generally in view from the entrance of the library. There you may be asked to sign in, and it is there that you will find a library staff member to advise you. If the library has closed stacks, you will go there to ask for book retrieval.

The library catalog, either in a card file or a computer terminal, is usually located close to the reference desk. Although the catalog will not list every item in the library, you can expect to find all books included (with the exception of those awaiting processing). Often, periodicals are listed as well. The standard methods of cataloging allow you to find a book by title, author, and several subject terms. If you are using a computerized catalog, you will also be able to search by keyword — any word in the title or a part of a subject heading.

A collection of reference books is located in the reading room. These include encyclopedias, indexes to periodical literature, auction price guides, and other frequently used tools. In many museum libraries, there is often a section of materials reserved for the use of docents.

Current periodicals are displayed in the reading room on magazine shelving. Back issues are often stored in stacks where they are collated and bound.

For more information about conducting art research and a description of a wide variety of art reference books, the authors of this article highly recommend the text: Art Information: Research Methods and Resources, by Lois Swan Jones.

Jeannette Dixon and William Howze are married and live in Houston, TX. Ms. Dixon is the Librarian at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Prior to this, she served as Librarian for the Kimbell Art Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art . She earned a Masters Degree in Library Science from Simmons College, Boston, and is active in both the Art Libraries Society of North America and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

Dr. Howze produces films and videos for art museums. He was an NEH Fellow in Museum Studies at Yale and earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He established the Department of Special Programs for the Amon Carter Museum, where he worked for 12 years.

Dixon, Jeannette and Howze, William. “Getting the Most From Your Library Research,” The Docent Educator 1.4 (Summer 1992): 14-15.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *