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Starting a new chapter

The RIBA Library's new librarian, Dr Irena Murray, hopes to open up the institute's collections to a wider audience, including children, writes Paul Finch

Next week's launch of the new architecture gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum (architect Gareth Hoskins) will be a significant moment for a variety of organisations and individuals.

It marks the physical expression of the relationship established between the RIBA and the V&A in respect of their joint interest in promoting both the institute's Drawings Collection and the 'Architecture for All' outreach programme. For the RIBA Trust, under new director Charles Knevitt, it represents the start of a new era in which the institute's cultural assets will become its responsibility, with Baroness (Tessa) Blackstone as chair.

It will also be a memorable first milestone on a long march to strengthen and expand the role of the RIBA Library for its new librarian, Czech-born Dr Irena Murray. 'It's a momentous undertaking', she says. The Drawings Collection and other special collections, for example photography, all come under her wing; happily they are not unfamiliar to her, since she studied as a graduate student in London in the 1970s.

But her life had taken a dramatic turn before she first came here: 'I was one of the Class of '68.' She left Prague (which she still visits) at the same time as Jan Kaplicky and Eva Jiricna, but headed for Canada and studied in Montreal, to which she subsequently returned in 1973, undertaking her PhD in architectural history and theory at McGill University.

Her areas of expertise relate to interwar Modernism in central Europe, though she has also taught courses in research methodology and art-andarchitecture librarianship.

A series of library-related appointments culminated in her becoming, in 1996, chief curator of rare books and special collections at the John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection at McGill.

Murray is a librarian through and through, and you suspect that she will be even more impressed with other new facilities (designed by Wright and Wright) at the V&A, comprising study rooms and storage arrangements light years ahead of the old premises in Portman Square, which could never match the quality of the contents.

'I always thought what was there was astounding, the collection of Palladios was impressive in itself, ' she says, 'but I knew more about the highlights than the details. The core of British drawings makes the collection very special, but the library is a hydra of amazing resources, including information services.'

Murray's task will not merely be to be a curator and steward of a major world resource ('It's the top of the heap'), but also to 'open up the collections to a huge and diverse clientele, including primary schools. Education in architecture begins in childhood.

It's not until later that we realise what a significant part it plays.' Nor will it be simply concentrating on the V&A end of the library, crucial though that is, since Murray has high regard for the assets at 66 Portland Place, noting, for example, 'the affinity between the photographic archive and the journals'. She also thinks it may be possible to mount simultaneous exhibitions at the V&A and No 66, looking at the same subject from different, but related, perspectives.

Murray is clearly a formidable academic, with what one senses is a steely intellectual backbone offset by a natural charm (including a Czech accent with Canadian overtones). When she says she wants to 'look at architecture in the wider culture, partly through looking at the margins of other disciplines', you know she means business. She sees the way that architecture is discussed in the British media as a positive sign of its acceptance as part of general cultural discourse, but is not certain how much this 'ubiquitous cultural phenomenon' is reaching into secondary schools. Cue for outreach.

Murray thinks London has improved architecturally since she was here in the '70s, though she is more interested in architecture in its urban context than 'solitaire buildings', especially having lived through the shock of losing all architectural and urban bearings in the move from Prague to Montreal: 'I had wanted my Baroque; it took me two years to really see Montreal and its waterfront and silos.' The relationship between Old World and New became a subject of her own work in relation to the architecture of Canada, since it transpires that students of Robert Lorimer, not well known over here, applied his methods to the creation of both buildings and cities, and in the criteria used to assess architectural worth. She sees this as an example of how the marginal from one territory can become core to a new one.

Here future tasks are many and varied, but always looking outward: 'I want us to be out there in the world, free of the insular undergrowth which can affect British culture. I want to make the library shine, to show how it is connected to the culture of architecture worldwide.' The library has a new asset.

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