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Hannah Bennet at Avery – a Library of the Future

On 05 November 2020, by Bernard Zirnheld

We sat down with Hannah Bennet the new Director of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, at Columbia University in New York City.

Hannah Bennet at Avery – a Library of the Future

Hannah Bennet.
Courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, at Columbia University

What are a few of your favorite objects in the collection?
Such a difficult question. Having been at Avery only a year —and what a year it has been! —I still have much to explore in the stacks and vaults. The Art Properties' collection of contemporary Inuit sculpture is an absolute joy to take in. Long before the major Frank Lloyd Wright Archive landed at Avery, our Drawings & Archives department acquired a set of renderings and sketches from the period of his employment with Louis Sullivan and it’s thrilling to Wright’s annotations of his master’s designs. Our core Classics Collection includes so many monuments of architectural publishing. A personal favorite is Thomas Wright's eighteenth-century Various & Valuable Sketches and Designs of Buildings. The Avery holds one of two extant volumes (the other is at the V&A Museum in London) documenting Wright's designs beyond his published work. And then there are the Piranesi prints, including a near-complete set of the Rome printing of his Opere as well as Prima parte di architetture (1743), Piranesi's first printed work.

What are the challenges facing arts libraries and special collections in the twenty-first century?
Art and design scholarly productions are increasingly assuming novel or experimental formats. Digital productions confront an art library's capacity to not just acquire an item but to preserve it in perpetuity with the means to simulate the intended interaction years into the future. This challenge is especially rooted in architectural and engineering archives, but evidenced in the arts arena as well. Many print publications, catalogues raisonnés in particular, include a digital corollary such as an application, website, video, or other forms of time-based media. And then there are those fugitive digital productions that are near impossible to capture and archive: blog posts, podcasts, virtual reality productions, etc.

Who are the various constituencies of the Avery Library, how are they different, and how do you balance their different needs?
As a university library, Avery's primary constituencies are the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and the Department of Art History and Archaeology. On the one hand, the collection exists to support the design process, and on the other, the focus is entirely historical, with each constituency of users drawing from different areas of the collection. We support that spectrum of needs with materials ranging from archaeological field reports, data sets, historic trade catalogs, serial publications, online databases, and much more. I would say our "power" users are the graduate students in each division, particularly the doctoral students. However, curricula across campus are becoming more and more interdisciplinary and focused on spatial and visual experience, so our collections fit the needs of many beyond our primary users. It is important to note that Avery also serves an international community of researchers through its special collections. Those patrons are often the heaviest users of our rare books and archival collections.

In 2012 the Avery acquired the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archive in a joint purchase with MOMA. How did that collaboration come about and how might it be a model for future collecting?
For the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive, the partners agreed that MoMA would hold the models, as they have the space and conservation expertise to effectively steward this component of the collection. MoMA does not routinely collect archival collections (papers, photographs, etc.) because they lack the expertise needed to process and serve such collections, whereas that is the mission of Avery's Drawings and Archives Department. The partnership draws on the strengths of each collaborator, which made this acquisition feasible. I would love to see this partnership model applied to future projects and opportunities. This will be critical as more and more notable architects are inclined to sell their archives rather than donating them to research institutions.

Can you tell us about some of the more innovative recent acquisitions made by the Library?
Ólafur Elíasson's Your House is one of our more interesting acquisitions in the Classics Collection. At nearly a thousand hand-bound pages, Eliasson re-creates his Nordic Romantic style house in Copenhagen through digitally reproduced cross-sections on a 85:1 scale. As pages are turned, architectural details appear and disappear. It's incredibly immersive. I would also point to Avery's various web archive collections including New York City Spaces and Places, Collaborative Architecture, Urbanism, and Sustainability Web Archive (CAUSEWAY), and the Latin American and Caribbean Contemporary Art Web Archive.

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