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Research & Scholarship

Art in the Library

January 13th, 2017 by Ann Skiold

…” the best way to capture the imagination is to speak to the eyes.” – William Playfair

John Cotton Dana (1856-1929) served dual roles as librarian for the Newark Library, and as the director of the Newark Museum, both of which were housed in the same building. Dana worked in a public library but in time “academic libraries are increasingly being called upon to manage and supervise art collections for their campuses” (Kemp, 162). Libraries and museums have similar missions. Both are collecting institutions, leaders in information management, dedicated to education, uphold preservation and conservation and circulate the work. However, with the proliferation of academic university libraries it has become increasingly difficult time and budget wise, for librarians to care for the art collection while serving as librarians as well. Today it is the norm for most well-endowed universities to have a separate art museum on campus. The need for accessible visual art on campus harks back to the pioneering courses of theory and history of art first being taught in the 1870’s.

Art in libraries was and still is a “natural and common practice” (Cirasella and Deutch, 2). Each library has dealt with their own interiors such as sturdy and functional furniture which today has been replaced by intelligent, functional and flexible furnishings that serve the patrons’ needs and is aesthetically pleasing. The stacks have also been upgraded to code and purpose. The wall spaces however often have been left unadorned or haphazardly decorated in many libraries, including Syracuse Libraries. There exists no standard code or best practice to what, where or how to display art in the library. It has been left to chance of well-meaning staff and librarians where the displays at times are a mélange of mismatched posters, art work and the like. Syracuse University Libraries to date has no display policy for Bird Library.

This space could use a little art...

This space could use a little art…

Late last semester 2016 Syracuse University Libraries created the working group BBB (brighten, beautify and brand) public areas of Bird Library with a mission of displaying various types of art, long and short term, in a professional fashion. Our team walked through the various areas and floors and early on we agreed that it would be nice to display art on each floor that reflected the Library of Congress disciplines housed there.

As an aside, I have for several years been in charge of a small gallery/ study space, Biblio Gallery, in the library that showcases Syracuse University student art work. I educate the student in how and what is expected when curating and hanging a successful exhibition as if in a commercial gallery.

From a series of pen and ink drawings by Hesam Fetrati that hung in the Biblio Gallery

From a series of pen and ink drawings by Hesam Fetrati that hung in the Biblio Gallery

When I was looking for more information regarding how other academic libraries have handled the task our working group had been asked to study, I came across the wonderful case study written by Professor Jill Cirasella and Professor Miriam Deutch, both at Brooklyn College recording their pioneering journey titled “From Art on the Wall to Something for All: How an Academic Library Turned its Art Collection in to a Campus Attraction.” Syracuse University is fortunate to have a separate museum (Syracuse University Art Galleries) and art loans are frequently granted from their collection. There are many in-house sources that can also be considered for loan or reproduction of visual art material such as special collections and archives, not to forget faculty, student and alumni art. After all, “…academic libraries look for ways to spark students’ curiosity and creativity” (Cirasella and Deutch, 3).

The authors of this paper had the foresight to document each art exhibit in an online catalogue, as well as advertising the exhibitions and holding contests. Some venues worked and others were overly ambitious and failed. Yet, their efforts were rewarded in many ways at the Brooklyn College Library.

Suzanna Simor beautifully sums up the benefits of art in the library: “Exhibitions become a library’s new, powerful resource that educates, enriches, strengthens the mind and senses, inspires, delights, renews and refreshes. Exhibitions are a library’s powerful public relations tool” (Simor, 139).


Cirasella, Jill, and Miriam Deutch. “From Art on the Wall to Something for All: How an Academic Library Turned Its Art Collection into a Campus Attraction.” Journal of Library Innovation 3.1 (2012): 1-19.

Kemp, Jane. “Art in the Library: Should Academic Libraries Manage Art?” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 20, no. 3 (1994): 162–66. doi:10.1016/0099-1333(94)90010-8.

Simor, Suzanna. “Art Exhibitions in Academic Libraries: A Necessary (?) Luxury (?).” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 10, no. 3 (1991): 137-39.

“Student Art Competition | MSU Libraries.” Accessed January 13, 2017.

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