In July 2005, we began a programme of building and refurbishment works to re-house the Witt and Conway Photographic Libraries within a single shared space on the lower ground and basement levels of the East Wing. New space was required in particular for the Research Forum and the Development Office. With no extra expansion space available it was decided to locate the Photographic Libraries in a shared space and shelve far more intensely, taking advantage of every bit of previously unexploited space, but with the intention –which we achieved- of ensuring that all of the photographic collections remained on-site and fully accessible.

We were able to build other benefits into the scheme: an increase in fully-networked reader spaces in the Witt-Conway area, a security entrance gate for the Photographic Libraries, a new internet café for students, urgently required shelf expansion space and a new room (generously funded by the American Friends of the Courtauld Institute) to house the John Shearman collection of Renaissance material in the Book Library, and an environmentally-controlled negative store. Funding from HEFCE under the SRIF2 initiative enabled us to undertake the project.

The provision of an environmentally-controlled negative store was an important aspect of the project. We have become increasingly aware, over the years, of the importance of the negative collection, which contains 19th century material. At the same time we have become increasingly aware of the fragility of the collection, with its breakable glass plates, combustible early cellulose nitrate film, and post-war acetate film with its inbuilt tendency to disintegrate. With great efforts we had managed to stabilise conditions in the old negative store, but it was far from satisfactory. Now we have four separate negative vaults, and are able to separate the different types of film, so that the disintegrating acetates do not affect those that are still intact, and the potentially combustible nitrates can be stored at lower temperatures than the other negatives. At last, the Institute’s magnificent collection of negatives can be stored in accordance with accepted archival standards.

Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. There are still problems with the configuration of the negative shelving. There were some heart-stopping moments as the Witt and Conway boxes were being loaded onto their new shelves and we wondered whether our meticulous calculations of box numbers and shelf meterage were correct. Fortunately, our maths proved equal to the task, with some space for expansion. Now the Witt and the Conway stand in close proximity to the Book Library, and the three great research resources underpin, both physically and metaphorically, the research culture of the Institute.

Dr. Sue Price
Courtauld Librarian and Head of Academic Information Services

Barbara Thompson
Witt Librarian

Dr. Lindy Grant
Acting Conway Librarian