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The humble Library and Archives at the NGC

By Apartment613 on February 5, 2014

Post by Siu Hong Yu, volunteer extraordinaire with the Library Association of the National Capital Region.

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think about the National Gallery of Canada? Not the humble Library and Archives, I would guess, which is tucked away at the northeast corner on the second floor opposite to the contemporary art galleries. That’s why I was pretty excited about the special tour organized by the Library Association of the National Capital Region (LANCR) a few weeks ago.


Library and Archives foyer.

Led by the Chief of Library, Archives and Research Fellowships Program, Jonathan Franklin, we first stopped by the library’s foyer for a brief look at the current exhibition The Library of Fritz Brandtner, which runs until April 25, 2014. Fritz Brandtner (1896-1969), who immigrated to Canada in 1928 from Germany, was a prolific artist, art educator and cultural figure. The exhibition showcases a selection of his books, exhibition catalogues, notebooks and teaching materials. A “compulsive underliner and annotater”, the marginalia and ephemera inserts found in the collection are sometimes more interesting than the books themselves and provide much insight into Fritz’s personal life. According to Jonathan, the Library features three exhibitions a year to highlight the extensive research materials available at the NGC.

Library and Archives main reading room.

Library and Archives main reading room.

By the time we got to the main reading room, the sun had set but looking out at the darkened skyline of Gatineau along with the meandering tree trunk sculpture by Roxy Paine, it’s not hard to imagine how stunning the room could be when it’s filled with natural light. The spacious reading room is open to the public in the afternoon on weekdays and its main clients are students, gallery curators and researchers from other institutions.


Cabinets containing microforms, study photographs and slides.

Cabinets containing microforms, study photographs and slides.

Down to the rabbit hole we went, our next stop was the stacks which are closed to the public and where the materials are paged to be made available on request. The vault consists of two levels where one is mainly for books while the other for archival materials. In total, the library currently holds over 275,000 books, exhibition catalogues and bound periodicals. As we made our way through the maze of stacks, we were told that the rolling metal shelves have a history of their own. Transferred from the now-demolished Lorne Building on Elgin Street, which housed the Gallery’s old library, they are older than the present building on Sussex Drive! As the country’s largest art library, the collections also include 58,000 auction catalogues, 95,000 microforms, 362,000 study photographs, 203,000 slides and 1000 linear meters of institutional archives and private papers. What I find most fascinating, however, is the Artists in Canada database that is comprised of documentation files and biographical information compiled and maintained by the Library on more than 67,000 Canadian artists. That’s some hit list I say!

As impressive as those numbers are, it is always a balancing act between being comprehensive and staying relevant. Through exhibitions, publications, special seminars and public engagements such as participating in Doors Open Ottawa, the Library is actively seeking new ways to engage. From reference space allocation to WiFi access in the reading area, user accommodation is one of the Library’s top priorities. In this day and age of instant information access, the Library’s website also features an extensive list of electronic resources while material digitization is currently underway. But as expected, the process faces many challenges and involves lots of trial-and-error. For one, critical photographs and illustrations may become lost in digitization due to copyright issues. It never crossed my mind that the supplements and ads in a magazine could be valuable too, but I digress…

Beyond Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, and Tom Thomson’s The Jack Pine, the Library and Archives surely deserves its own spotlight not only for the hidden gems within but also for the vital support and resources it provides to make any groundbreaking exhibitions happen in the first place. There are Research Fellowships and Volunteer & Internship Programs available for those of you who’d like to dig into its vast collections.

In terms of upcoming events, LANCR is organizing a panel discussion on “rethinking the library space” for this spring as well as more library tours, one at the National Arts Centre’s Archives and another at the new MacOdrum Library at Carleton University, later on this year.