In 1874 Heinrich Wild-Wirth became the first librarian of the Zürcher Künstler-Gesellschaft; the first printed “Library catalogue of the Künstler-Gesellschaft in Zürich” appeared in 1875. The statutes of the Künstlergesellschaft in Zurich, as revised in 1873, state in § 1 that the creation of a library is one of the ways in which the association can fulfil its principal goal of ”making all possible efforts to promote and awaken a feeling for and awareness of art”. The library is to “contain works on art history, artists, art collections as well as encyclopaedias and art journals”. Rules for use are also laid down: “Association members may refer to books in the library itself or at home”, the loan period is four weeks.
Today, more than 125 years later, the library collection has grown to over 220,000 volumes; nonetheless the goal of “maintaining and expanding the art collections and the library” still remains the top priority in the statutes of the “Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft”. And although the profile of the library collection, as a specialist academic library for modern art, has been defined more precisely, in essence it has barely changed, and user regulations still permit borrowers to take books home with them.
Whilst for the founders of the Künstlergesellschaft it was absolutely clear that an “understanding of fine art” required the presence not just of artworks themselves but also of an art library, today the traditional definition of the library has been called into question by the rapid access to information provided by computer networks. Now instead of investing funds in books and reading rooms more and more money is going towards financing (temporary) user rights for copyright protected works on networks.
Whilst the limited shelf-life of scientific/technical knowledge may well speak in favour of such a change, the usefulness of a specialist library continues to stand in direct relation to the size of the collection itself. Electronic media remain ephemeral: older data, even if it ever existed in digital form, becomes unreadable; information for which there is no longer any commercial demand is often unavailable or is even deleted. Pictures and illustrations are a significant part of almost every publication concerning the fine arts and it is seldom possible to find pictures in electronic publications which approach the quality of those in print. Consequently, collecting, cataloguing and conserving will remain one of the most important tasks of the library.
For many years now the library has also acquired videos, CD-ROMs and DVDs; however it is scarcely imaginable that they will continue to be usable in this form in the next century in the way that books and journals will be. Valuable information can be accessed via the Internet, if you know where to look for it. As a medium it is useful for bibliographical and biographical research and as a source of all types of factual information. Increasingly, museums are making their own collections available on their own web sites or in collaboration with other institutions, and cataloguing and providing online resources in the area of fine arts has now become part of the work of the library. Software which allows simultaneous searches in databases of different types will soon begin to take over from link collections.
The library functions both as the information centre and the memory of the museum. It helps the museum in its work for the Collection and exhibitions, and it also provides resources for members of the general public interested in art on a personal or professional level, but above all it exists as a service to members of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft.