Art Librarianship

Image by Flickr user wonderferret and used under Creative Commons License

Image by Flickr user wonderferret and used under Creative Commons License

Many of us start out library school with a particular area of focus in mind. Mine was art libraries, and while I have explored other areas of librarianship, this one is still of interest to me. There are many ways to be an art librarian, so when people would ask, “what kind of library do you want to work in?” I would get flustered. You can be a subject specialist in a university or public library, work in a museum, work for a non-profit organization, the list goes on. There’s not one way to be! Think about all the ways our society learns about art and imagine a librarian there to help with the process. That being said, there are quite a few good resources for students who are interested in art librarianship.


ARLIS/NA,  Art Libraries Society of North America – This is the organization for art libraries. They really are the go to people if you’re interested in art librarianship. Art Documentation, their official bi-annual bulletin has tons of great information about what’s going on in the art library world. It’s free if you’re an ARLIS member, students can join for a discounted price of $50 a year, so think about joining!

VRA, Visual Resources Association, is a multi-disciplinary organization dedication to visual culture. They’re also responsible for creating the VRA Core data standard, for those interested in cataloging or metadata.

For students, I especially recommend checking out  ArLiSNAP, a group just for students and new professionals in the field. They’re on Twitter too!

Both ARLIS/NA and VRA have annual conferences, last year they even had a joint conference. As a student, you can get discounted rates to attend, plus there are scholarships available if you do want to go.


Some schools offer dual degree programs if you want to get a second master’s degree while you’re in library school. The art subject specialist librarian that I spoke to before I started my program had a PhD in Art History, so having a secondary degree can really help you out in the job market.

Pratt offers a dual degree, plus it’s in a major art hub, NYC. You can’t beat that, there are so many opportunities available to students to work or intern in a specialized library of their choosing. Read our Hack Your Program posts (here and here) from other Pratt students.

Indiana University also has a dual degree program. IU Bloomington has several libraries dedicated to certain schools, and students can get experience working in a variety of different types of libraries, including art.

What if you’re in school now and your program doesn’t offer any coursework in art librarianship? You can always tailor your projects to your interests. In my reference and collection development classes, I focused my class projects on art libraries. You can also consult this incredibly thorough directory of LIS programs that lists out all the library schools and lays out what courses of interest each school may have for students interested in art or visual librarianship.

If this is an area of librarianship that you’d like to explore, I highly suggest you do a few things. First off, do some informational interviews with art librarians. As I said earlier, there’s not one type of art librarian so don’t talk to just one person, talk to a few and see what the differences are. Second, join ARLIS as a student member, or at least sign up for the list-serv and see what other librarians are up to. Out of all the list-servs I spy on, the ARLIS one has the most interesting reference questions (but I say that because I think art librarianship is awesome). Third, do an internship in an art library setting. I’m starting an internship next spring at an art museum and I really look forward to seeing the difference between a museum library and an academic library, which is where most of my work experience is. Another tip is to pay attention in your cataloging and metadata classes, visual resources and cultural artifacts require different standards and levels of description so it’s good to at least know a little about that.

Additional resources

This post is meant to give a general introduction to art librarianship and welcomes additional tips, resources, and questions, so if you have any please add them into the comments.

7 replies

  1. Great post, Annie. Also look for the ARLIS/NA publication “Fine Arts and Visual Resources Librarianship: A Directory of Library Science Degree Programs in North America,” which is designed to help prospective MLIS students understand which schools have specialized programs and resources for art librarianship. The information is really just a starting point, but hopefully it will help people understand their options.

    I also recommend doing informational interviews with current grad students in different programs. That, in addition to touring the facilities and talking to faculty, is another important source of information.


  2. Hi Annie,

    Great post, and it’s nice to see us art librarians getting a little attention. It’s a great specialization, and good for those who like to wear lots of hats as a librarian. I regularly do cataloging, reference, acquisitions, and circulation in a normal day. It’s fun.

    Under “schools” you ask this question:

    “What if you’re in school now and your program doesn’t offer any coursework in art librarianship?”

    I strongly suggest that if you are interested in art librarianship, see if an art museum in your area has a library, and ask if you can volunteer or help in some capacity. Art libraries (except for the largest ones) typically have small staffs, and love having help! It’s a great way for you to get good experience, and to help a museum out.

    Just to put this out there, an increasing trend in art librarianship is the expectation of either an MA in art history, of at least 3-5 years of experience. Be prepared to go back and get your MA, have one already, or get some good experience.

    ARLIS/NA folks are really friendly – reach out to them if you are interested in art librarianship – we love to help!



  3. I just wanted to say thank you for this article! I’m 16 and certain I want to be a librarian, but I wasn’t sure if arts librarian was the specialization for me. These resources are incredibly useful in figuring out what I’d like.


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