HOUSTON'S CREATIVE WORKFORCE: LIBRARY + INFORMATION COLLECTION
Brittany Johnson, Advancement Assistant
Jon Evans, Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) Chief Librarian, knows that this is more than likely how you view your local library, but he (and every other librarian in the world, undoubtedly) also knows that you couldn’t be further from the truth. “Libraries today serve as social gathering places, exhibition spaces, and technology centers. Further, the notion of a library as singular entity in a singular place is no longer a reality. Libraries certainly have a physical presence, but they also exist in a digital realm that allows for information to be shared and consumed in ways and places that extend beyond traditional boundaries,” he said.
All this activity means that Evans and his team of 15 are busy. It’s their job to make their more than 185,000 volumes – 135,000 books and periodical titles, 35,000 auction catalogs and 30,000 vertical files - easily accessible and relevant to the more than 5,000 patrons who come through library doors each year.
MFAH’s two libraries, the Hirsch Library, which is the encyclopedic art library on the museum’s main campus, and the Kitty King Powell Library and Study Center at Bayou Bend, which is the library for American decorative arts, are vital to the museum and to the public, who have free access to both facilities.
MFAH staff use the collections to research acquisitions, plan exhibitions, educate visitors and produce publications. Evans believes that each of these activities, ultimately help the museum tell a story about the development of cultures around the world. These stories then inform and enrich the museum’s audience aka our fellow Houstonians. To quote Evans, as he quotes former MFAH director, Phillippe de Montebello, “books are the tools of our trade; without a well-stocked library, no truly professional work can be done in a museum…”
Additionally, the Hirsch and Powell libraries, are a resource for researching scholars, as well as for Houstonians who simply want to know more about the vast world of art. The libraries enjoy partnerships with both the University of Houston and Rice University, meaning that the general public can benefit from the collections of all three institutions through interlibrary loans and hopefully in the future, a joint online catalog (conversations are underway). Until this happens, the Hirsch Library will continue to acquire and provide seminal works on the history of art.
Evans estimates that, through this endeavor, the libraries bring in about 6,000 items each year. Items come to the library through purchase, gift or exchange; however, before anything can be officially added to the collection, it must be vetted by library staff and must be a part of what a team of eight liaisons and MFAH professional staff determine to be a collection priority.
One such priority is the library’s The William J. Hill Texas Artisans & Artists Archive. This ongoing and important project is a freely searchable archive that documents the lives, work and products of Texas artisans through the year 1900. This unique resource allows students and researchers to explore Texas culture in a way never previously possible. The Archive includes census records, newspaper articles, and other primary source materials of the 19th century and is continually evolving, with information added regularly.
In addition to the development and expansion of the Hill Archive, in 2016 the library procured several items including Leonardo da Vinci’s Trattato della Pittura or Treatise on Painting (1651), which was closely read in academic settings from more than 300 years; William Blake’s Night Thoughts (1797), which is a masterpiece of bookmaking that features Blake’s “sublime integration of image and text”; and several vintage posters produced by the Guerilla Girls, a prominent group of activist-artists from the mid-1980s that exploited advertising tactics in an effort to spread feminist messages.
Altogether, there are more than a dozen professional art librarians serving Houston and the city’s various arts institutions. While other cities (i.e. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) employ significantly larger numbers of art information professionals, this field has seen growth in our city over the past several decades, while other regions have either stagnated or diminished. “Houston is fortunate to maintain an incredibly strong and generous art community,” said Evans. [We] are one part of this community – but ones that are vital to informing and educating Houstonians about their own art and culture and the broader world around them.”
So does that make the MFAH libraries and those who work in this industry a part of our city’s creative economy? “In the strictest sense, no,” he said. “We’re not producing anything that economists could quantify as a commodity. However, if one takes a broader approach, we provide an educational service that has cultural significance, and by providing access to content, we impact the production of creative output.” So…take your pick!
*Staid (adj.): sedate, respectable, and unadventurous.