The Agony and the Ecstasy

There is a Specialist Library for practically anything. Some have grown into substantial businesses but most are run out of premises, usually a family home, where the proprietor has learned to live with the business and retirement isn't an option. As a rule, such libraries are the Fountains of All Knowledge where their own specialist subject is concerned. No general library can possible hope to better the information available from a dedicated specialist. The skill is to keep it manageable, to resist the temptation to install voice mail, to answer the phone within a couple of rings, to respond to every request instantly and to ensure that at the end of the day, the staff settle down over a bottle of wine whilst waiting for the inevitable last minute request for a high res.

The Agony - the phone fails to ring; when it does you haven't got it; perfect pictures are supplied to meet a specific request but the publication chooses to use a generic image from a huge competitor; a favourite picture researcher retires; the insurance is due; a fine contributor withdraws everything; a computer crashes; the IT specialist who knows everything gets appendicitis; power failures (that's a real downer); a picture gets published with the wrong caption; Royal Mail screws up; a file sheet is mis-filed and could be anywhere; you know you have the right picture but you can't find it.

The Ecstasy - phone, fax and e-mail erupt at the same time; a double page spread which looks wonderful; a big picture on a page with a tiny one beside it supplied by a huge competitor; a big book with pictures by nobody else; supplying something unusual which nobody else has and the astonishment of the picture researcher; the researcher who calls just to say hallo at the end of a day spent in front of a computer screen; the 'eureka' moment when you find exactly the right image in the files; the researchers who call to say thank you; the contributors who don't complain but stay with you because they like you; the client who isn't doing three books as planned - but ten; the magic moment when you discover how to do something with your laptop without having to ask the IT specialist with appendicitis.

Specialist libraries are one of the great treasures in the business of supplying images. Without them, publishers will soon find it difficult to find anything which is not a generic image. Obscure portal dolmens in Ireland, Accrington looking as if it might be a nice place to move to, Canary Wharf when there was nothing there, the Eden Project when it was a hole in the ground, domestic oak gate posts, the first occasion Bob Dylan ever performed in London - none one of these are likely to be easily accessible from a huge library because no huge library would bother with them. Specialist Libraries take time and make an effort to fill the gaps - and the gaps are very big and getting bigger.

Sal Shuel, Collections Picture Library

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