Art of librarianship at the Ringling

By Susan L. Rife . Herald Tribune
Published Sunday, June 8, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.

Inside the beautiful, light-filled space that is the art library at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is a small room where wooden bookcases surround a central reading table.

The room contains hundreds of art books collected by John Ringling. After his death in 1936, every item in his residence, Cą d'Zan, was inventoried and cataloged, "every room, every shelf, so you know what book was on which shelf in what room," said Ringling librarian Linda McKee.

During the 10 years while Ringling's estate was settled, most of the books disappeared, except for the art books, which number about 900.

After decades of cramped storage in the old, 2,750-square-foot library, Ringling's art books now have their own glorious home inside the 13,000-square-foot art library that opened last year in the Education and Conservation Building on the Ringling campus.

The new library, home to 70,000 volumes and exhibition catalogs and 100 periodical titles, is a sweet reward for McKee, who has served as the head librarian at Ringling since 1994 after seven years in the Sarasota County library system.

When she began, her budget for acquiring new art books was $400; it is now $32,000.

For the first seven years, she was the sole library employee. Now she has an assistant librarian, Artis Wick, and two part-timers. Interns and a group of volunteers also help, and members of the newly formed Friends of the Ringling Museum Art Library, numbering about 40, contribute as well.

The reading room of the art library has soaring windows overlooking the grounds of the museum; mission-style lamps cast additional light on light-finished oak study tables. Although books cannot be checked out of the library, it is open to the public for research three afternoons a week and by appointment.

Although there are computers and Internet access in the library, most of its resources can be discovered only the old-fashioned way: Paging through books and periodicals.

Very little of the material in the library has been digitized. When art students come in and declare that they "can't find anything" online about a particular painting or artist, McKee will "sometimes grab them by their shoulders and tell them where the books are. They are totally discounting anything that was written before 1985."

Example: "Our Rubens file on 'The Triumph of the Eucharist' is this thick," McKee said, showing an 8- to 10-inch thick folder. "And none of it is online, none of it. It's papers from former curators, information that docents have written."

A volunteer spends one day a week scanning material into the computer. Even with a staff scanning books and documents around the clock, it would take decades to digitize the entire collection.

So, archaic though it seems, researchers and art lovers must instead make their way through the stacks, where treasures are shelved according to the Library of Congress classification system, which is used by most academic and research libraries.

An entire wall is devoted to oversized shelving for large-format art books.

"So many beautiful large art books weren't able to be handled properly" in the old library, said McKee. "There were 20, 30 books piled on top of each other. And they used to be high! It could have killed me!"

Shelves in a separate area hold about 3,000 rare books, "rare" being defined as anything published before 1900, valuable or unusual. A book of animal sketches by Alexander Calder is in the rare-books section.

"It's not worth a lot of money, but it's rare," said McKee.

A signed copy of Thomas Hoving's "Making the Mummies Dance," his 1994 memoir about his decade as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is also in the rare-books section, as is the first exhibition catalog from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

The library also contains a collection of about 100 books from the library of Bertha Honore Palmer, the Chicago socialite credited with putting Sarasota on the map in the early years of the 20th century.

Her collection, which includes books on architecture, landscape gardening and the World's Fair in Chicago, was donated anonymously in 1970.

"That's a nice little substantial collection," said McKee, who holds a bachelor of arts degree in German and art history from Douglass College in New Jersey and master's degrees in art history and library services from Rutgers University.

McKee also helps select books from the collection, especially those from John Ringling's library, for restoration and conservation. Typically 20 to 30 books a year make the trip to a Sarasota bookbinder who restores the books.

"What has needed the most work has been the spines," said McKee, although some books have required complete recreation. "We try to preserve as much as we can of the original book."

The John Ringling collection includes the second-largest and the smallest volumes in the library. The large book is "A Full-Length Portrait of the Marquis of Granby by Sir Joshua Reynolds," a 24-by-30-inch volume that includes a mezzotint print of the portrait, which Ringling also owned.

The smallest is a 3-by-4-inch "New Pocket Dictionary of English and German Languages."

Ringling's art books are focused on art history.

He bought them "to learn about art," said McKee. "He owned some of the most famous art histories of all time, the lives of the great Italian artists, German, Spanish. All these texts are basic texts. I was a graduate student in art history, and many of these were basic texts that we all read as graduate students and we still read today in art history."