By Saraleah Fordyce
The Bloomsbury Design Library is a digital collection that offers full access to the three-volume Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design, Victor Margolin’s two-volume World History of Design, and an array of other sources. The vast amount of information is organized by source type, with searchable content and suggestions for further reading. The database functions as an encyclopedia, and Bloomsbury promises that it will be updated twice a year with new articles, book chapters, and images. Schools can subscribe to it as they would to a standard database or journal, but The Bloomsbury Design Library is more curated than most databases and more expansive than a journal. It could be seen as Bloomsbury’s answer to Phaidon Design Classics, a three-volume encyclopedia set that is available in print or as an app. However, because The Bloomsbury Design Library integrates information from many different sources, it offers a wider variety of perspectives than any single publication could, no matter the number of volumes.
The Bloomsbury Design Library is not without precedent; it follows the publisher’s successful launch of the Berg Fashion Library, a similar database that combines Bloomsbury’s e-books and fashion encyclopedia with third-party resources and an image archive. Both digital libraries make available encyclopedia-style summaries, as well as the more nuanced and rigorous research of scholarly articles. Users can thus toggle between the formats, digging in deep when they choose without getting bogged down. If an article casually mentions a designer, a style, or an object without explanation, users can easily look up the unfamiliar topic without leaving the site and quickly receive a cursory overview.
The homepage, as of May 2018 (Figure 1), features a thematic and biographic focus, along with a clear list of five sources and categories to explore (World History of Design, Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design, Book Chapters, Designers, and Museum Collections). At the bottom of the page is a timeline with seven periods (Antiquity, Middle Ages, Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, Twentieth Century, and Twenty-First Century) and a featured image for each – for example, the Middle Ages icon is a stained-glass window and the twentieth-century icon is a Gaudí building. Users can search the entire database for terms or names, browse through a chapter from Margolin’s World History, and find images and background information in the timeline. The encyclopedia’s alphabetized entries place “Adidas” alongside “Ad-hocism” and “Adler, Rose (1890–1959),” thus creating unexpected juxtapositions of time, place, and method. Each entry is only one or two paragraphs in length, but includes suggestions for further reading. It is rare to find such brevity in the prairie-like expanse of digital space, and – rather than being a drawback – it makes the site a usefully digestible source for students looking to quickly grasp a basic concept or match a reference to an image. The resource is designed to be accessible and spur further research – and unlike a massive print encyclopedia that students must go to a physical library to consult, the curious can thumb through these digital entries on tiny screens while waiting in line for a coffee. Also unlike print resources, the database can and will change over time. All of the information in this review refers to the state of the site in May 2018.
The collection of book chapters is useful but does consist of a seemingly arbitrary assortment. It includes selections from sixty-seven e-books, ranging from The John Heskett Reader edited by Clive Dilnot to Becoming Human by Design by Tony Fry (Figure 2) to Sara Kristofferson’s critical history Design by Ikea. Apart from the fact that all of these titles were originally published by Bloomsbury, the reasoning for their inclusion is unclear. It seems that the selection currently has more to do with rights than with presenting balanced content. With that said, the interface is excellent; users can download PDFs that cite the source on the first page, and on-screen reading shows continuous text documents with subtle markers for page breaks so that the layout is maintained regardless of the format that the user chooses (print or online).
The “Designers” section currently features biographies of just over one hundred notable designers. Each entry includes a few explanatory paragraphs (most of which are sourced from The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design), along with basic identifying information such as professional affiliations, education, dates, and themes. Most of the included designers are from Europe and North America, and of the current one hundred and five, only four are women. One danger of presenting a list like this is that it implies a comprehensive frame and serves to reinforce the hegemony of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Western males in the recorded history of design. Hopefully, as the collection is expanded, a wider and more diverse net will be cast across disciplines, genders, and ethnicities. Margolin’s World History of Design does a far better job at this than The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design, even mining Bloomsbury’s own resources could begin to address this imbalance. The final section, “Museums,” also begs expansion. This section aims to provide users with high-resolution, downloadable images.
Currently the collection only includes objects from The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, but already there are 500 pieces with basic information and high-resolution images available (Figure 3). The interface could be easier to use and, of course, it would be great to have access to more images. Bloomsbury is dedicated to growing this portion of the library and has already announced the upcoming addition of The Encyclopedia of Asian Design, lesson plans, bibliographic guides, and an expanded and searchable image library. The vitality of the site will in part rest on the fruition of these features.
The Bloomsbury Design Library provides substantial, focused, reliable information about design history. It offers its users – students especially – a convenient entrée to the world of design ideas, guiding them towards deeper resources in a relevant and efficient manner. It is a useful starting point, if hardly the final word in design history.
Saraleah Fordyce is a lecturer at California College of the Arts
By Zara Arshad
The Bloomsbury Design Library is an exclusively digital resource that brings together key publications, like the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design, the Encyclopedia of Asian Design, and the World History of Design series, with additional content forms, including a database of museum collections, an exhibitions archive, and other research and learning tools, such as bibliographic guides. Part of Bloomsbury Publishing’s Digital Resources initiative, first launched in 2017, the Bloomsbury Design Library is an ambitious project that has the potential to become a central resource for researchers, teachers, and students of design all over the world.
As well as the aforementioned volumes, the library offers access to over seventy-five eBooks. These titles, which are authored by noted experts, span a range of disciplines and topics—from design history and theory, to architecture, craft, and even design futures. One of the most significant features of these eBooks is the ability to search each one using keywords, a useful tool that effectively helps to expedite the research process. A search for the word ‘global’ in Design and National Identity by Dr Javier Gimeno-Martínez (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), for example, returns 143 hits located in ten chapters. Selecting one of these results takes the user to full chapters in which the searched term appears, though perhaps somewhat counter intuitively the original search term is no longer highlighted within the text.
Additional benefits of these digitized publications entail fully linked tables of contents that redirect users to a selected book chapter, full colour illustrations, and live links embedded within entries, particularly in bibliographies, which lead users to online sources and repositories located elsewhere. These links increase the breadth of the Bloomsbury Design Library, providing immediate access to external sources that scholars may wish to consult quickly, though the project’s administrators will inevitably face challenges around monitoring and updating these links due to the generally transient nature of web-based material.
The book content in the Bloomsbury Design Library is complemented by other kinds of material, such as designer biographies, a history of design timeline, and sections highlighting specific museum collections and exhibitions, all providing useful basic reference points for researchers. The ‘Designer Biographies’ section, for instance, features short profiles of selected designers, with each entry comprising a brief opening text summarizing the designer’s career and activities, followed by listings outlining details such as institutional affiliation, gender, and nationality. The design directory could be a valuable resource for curators, teachers, and students, especially those embarking on a new research project. At present, however, this section—itself a collation of abridged extracts from the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design—is still limited in its representation, mostly spotlighting male personalities associated with Europe and North America. Curiously, the encyclopedia’s original entries on designers from Korea, such as Ahn Sang-soo, Noh Nora, and Min Chul-hong, have not yet been added to the resource, suggesting that it is still undergoing expansion.
The interactive timeline, meanwhile, could benefit from further development. Best browsed in full-screen mode, this is classified by century and decade, as well as by the following five themes: Culture and the Arts, Society and Politics, Technology and Science, Economics and Trade, and Ideas and Philosophies. These taxonomies demonstrate a welcomed attempt at situating design history in its wider political, social, cultural, and economic contexts. But a clunky format (clicking on ‘Read More’ on an entry, for instance, often redirects the user to another publication featured in the design library, requiring constant back-andforth navigation), alongside broken images and seemingly randomly selected entries has, unfortunately, resulted in a tool that is not as user friendly for scholars as it could be.
These shortcomings hint at the broader challenges of a digital initiative like the Bloomsbury Design Library: ensuring that the project website can be intuitively navigated, allowing for easy access to materials. Though the Bloomsbury Design Library demonstrates a clean website design, its navigation categories are somewhat confusing. Items on the homepage, which are listed under a subcategory called ‘Explore’, reappear in the website’s menu bar under ‘Browse Contents’, while the menu’s own ‘Explore’ option offers an entirely different set of categories (‘Period’, ‘Place’, ‘People’, ‘Disciplines’, and ‘Schools, Movement and Styles’). The layout, therefore, can be unclear for first-time users, though this issue can be quickly resolved of course via improved website structure.
Other sections of the digital library, such as ‘Museum Collections’, ‘Exhibition Archive’, and ‘Research and Learning Tools’, were sparsely populated at the time of writing. Though speculating from the few materials published, these areas of the website could become essential tools for future scholars and curators. The ‘Museum Collections’ section, for example, currently showcases two institutions—the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, USA, and Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen, Denmark. As with ‘Designer Biographies’, these profiles open with a short text outlining institutional history, as well as information about the museum’s collections.
The entry on MAD, furthermore, is accompanied by an illustrated selection of collection objects, which the user can explore further. If such material were to be compiled for an expanded list of design museums from around the globe, the Bloomsbury Design Library would become a hugely significant resource, not only offering an encyclopedic list of global design museum collections, but also allowing for their direct comparison. The ‘Exhibition Archive’, meanwhile, is a similar endeavour to the ‘Museum Collections’ section, though at present only two exhibitions affiliated with Designmuseum Danmark are listed.
Finally, the library’s ‘Research and Learning Tools’ area contains specially commissioned resource packs for teachers, students, and researchers, including lesson plans and bibliographic guides that draw on materials in the Bloomsbury Design Library. Only one lesson plan and one bibliographic guide have been uploaded at present: both focus on modernism in Scandinavia, and have been skilfully collated by Dr Charlotte Ashby, author of Modernism in Scandinavian Art, Architecture and Design (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). The lesson plan is especially comprehensive, with its suggestions of core texts, questions for discussion, homework exercises, and links to external content (including to museum databases). This is offered alongside an extensive literature review and bibliography that refreshingly lists titles not necessarily published by or affiliated with Bloomsbury.
The Bloomsbury Design Library’s current offerings make it an excellent place to start a research project for students, academics, and curators alike, providing access to a wide range of resources that cover design, crafts, and visual arts from 1500 BCE to the present day. Teachers, moreover, can use these materials to assign course readings at no extra cost to students, which illustrates another key benefit. The digital library demonstrates a solid foundational framework which Bloomsbury can now build upon: there is much scope to improve website usability, as well as to expand content to explore design in geographic contexts other than Europe and North America (the Encyclopedia of Asian Design is a good step in this regard). Also, lacking at present are works by authors of more varied backgrounds, including people of colour, whose voices are distinctly under-represented. Addressing this should, perhaps, move to the top of the priority list for Bloomsbury Publishing.
Zara Arshad is an independent curator based in London, UK