Smithsonian Artists’ Book Internship

“I deal with the intake of information, the transformation of information, and the communication of information.  The skills I have gained as a result of my involvement with librarianship, and in particular, art librarianship, have allowed me to increase my repertoire as an artist.  And in return, my continuous contact with an international array of contemporary artists has increased my effectiveness as an art librarian.”

John Held Jr. (Collaging Information: The Artist, the Librarian, the Artist/Librarian from the John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2008. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

In the Summer of 2012, I completed a Smithsonian Institution Libraries Professional Development Internship, in which I worked for five weeks at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (HMSG) Library, the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery (AA/PG) Library, and the National Museum of African Art (NMAA) Library.  The major goals of the project included making the hidden artists’ book collection more accessible and more visible to the public through addressing cataloging issues and highlighting items found within the collection.

This internship was particularly interesting to me because I am a visual artist (and have created artists’ books) and hope to work with artists’ book collections in an academic library setting.  There is a great deal of discussion happening among art librarians about how to address the unique issues of artists’ book collections.  How do we catalog them? How do we preserve them?  Is that even a book? Where do we store them?  How do we use them as research materials?  Should we separate them physically and intellectually from the general collections?  All of these questions present challenges in finding the answers and best practices regarding artists’ books; I am happy to have had the opportunity to help answer some of these questions.

Working collaboratively with a fellow intern, Michelle Strizever, and the directors of HMSG, AA/PG, and NMAA, we devised a plan to improve access by updating artists’ book MARC records, and to define future cataloging practices.  It is not currently possible for the public to pull a precise list of artists’ books at SIL through SIRIS (the Smithsonian’s online public access catalog).  In order to make the collection searchable within SIRIS, we identified items in the collection at AA/PG which need a 650 subject field “artists’ books – specimens” and a 655 genre field “artists’ books”.  Though the public is still unable to search the system by genre, this will at least allow for SIL librarians to search the SIL’s ILS and generate a list for interested patrons. We also discussed creating a publicly accessible database for artists’ books that would remain separate from SIRIS.  This portion of the internship will continue over the following years as the collections at HMSG and NMAA are also updated.

One of my visits to the Library of Congress to look at their amazing artists’ book collection

One important element to this internship was visiting other artists’ book collections in the Washington, DC area.  Not only did we get the opportunity to see beautifully crafted artists’ books, we learned how other librarians curate their collections and address the same issues we were working on.  The sites we visited were Library of Congress, Maryland Institute College of Art (Baltimore), George Mason University, Joshua and Phyllis Heller–rare book dealers, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the National Gallery of Art.  I gained a clear sense of the various collections in and around DC and spoke with some of the major contributors in the realm of artists’ books/art librarianship.  Strengthening ties within this community will only help us move forward with these unique collections.

Anna Brooke (HMSG), Jenna (GMU), Doug Litts(AA/PG), Amanda Meeks, Michelle Strizever George Mason University Special Collections
A visit to the Library of Congress

One of the ways in which we chose to highlight items in the artists’ book collection was through researching and analyzing individual items and writing blog posts for the SIL blog.  This was done in hopes of making more people aware of the collections and drawing more researchers into the libraries to use the artists’ books.  One of my blogs focused on Slurring at Bottom: A printer’s book of errors by Robin Price.  I was fortunate to talk with her on the phone and interview her about the process of creating this book work.  The other blog post highlights X-Ray Magazine, an artists’ publication that is closely linked to mail art.  Through extensive research at the Archives of American Art, I was able to learn a great deal more about mail art through the John Held Jr. Papers.  I also found that John Held Jr. is a notable art librarian; it was interesting reading about his approach to unifying life and art through art librarianship and the Archives of American Art blog asked me to contribute a guest post about my experience in the archives.

Researching at the Archives of American Art

There were many examples of mail art in the archives along with letters, notes, and essays.

Researching mail art at the Archives of American Art

X-Ray Magazine: A book of mail art

The most exciting part of the internship was the opportunity to curate a small show of artists’ books in the AA/PG library.  Michelle and I each had our “favorites” within the collection so we each selected three to research and display.  As we were making our final choices, we noticed that we found similar books appealing aesthetically and intellectually.  This motivated us to focus on one element that all of these works have in common: the unique use of materials.  I photographed the books and created this flier / invite in order to generate publicity for the show (and ultimately, the collection!).

We provided this short description along with our display of carefully displayed objects:

A book’s text conveys meaning through reading.  However, meaning can be expressed in other ways.   Typography, ink color, blank space, paper, artwork, and binding also provide information to the reader about the artist’s project.  Featuring artists’ books from the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, this exhibit investigates the way that book artists use material and visual features to make meaning.

Incorporating elements such as text, image, typography, handmade paper, collage, unconventional bindings, pop-ups and moveable parts, artists’ books push the boundaries of what a book is.  Book artists create works that do not always resemble or function as traditional books.  We read them differently than we read typical books.  In these artists’ books, the material textures and visual appearance guide the viewer, sometimes adding to the text and sometimes distracting from it.

We also had thirteen other books on display outside of the case that people were invited to read and interact with.  Our opening was publicized to the SIL staff, the public via a blog announcement, the local ARLIS members, and the College Book Arts Association members.  Between 50-60 people were in attendance; many were special collections/artists’ books librarians from both SIL and other research institutions who were excited to see and talk about our selection of books.

Myself (left) and Michelle Strizever (right) –ready for the opening of “Material Meanings”

I found this experience incredibly valuable and a lot of fun.  My knowledge of artists’ books goes beyond creating them and well into the issues that librarians who work them are faced with.  Collaborating with the librarians at SIL and talking with librarians at other institutions proved to be helpful in achieving so much progress in improving access and visibility of the artists’ books.

Coco Gordon’s books in the display case.

Want to find out more about artists’ books at the Smithsonian?

What is an artists’ book? By Anne Evenhaugen

SIL online catalog : search subject term “artists’ books”

More blog posts about individual artists’ books and updates on the collections at the Smithsonian