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Revealing the Hidden Beauty of Artists' Books Through Events and a Virtual Catalog

September 15, 2016
Barbara Opar and Lucy Campbell, column editors

Column by David Eifler and Molly Rose, University of California, Berkeley

Academic Arts and Architecture libraries have long collected artists’ books for their intellectual and artifactual value. Yet, many of these  works remain concealed in special collection vaults with  their beauty undiscoverable behind arcane bibliographic records.  Traditional exhibits put them on display, but only reveal at best a few facets of their meaning, visual and tactile elements.

UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design Library began collecting artists’ books in earnest 15 years ago under the direction of then head librarian Elizabeth Byrne.  Using endowment funds provided by faculty and other visionary donors, our librarians have selected 5-15 works each year to enhance  our collection on the built environment: architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning.  Now numbering nearly 250 works, the Environmental Design Library’s artist book collection is visually stunning and represents the work of a diverse array of artists from within and outside the United States.  Given that many artists books are created to entice viewers to touch, turn pages and interact with the pieces, we have tried a number of ways to make these more accessible to our faculty and student patrons.  Stored in our rare book vault for reasons of security and preservation, patrons can request individual titles from our reference desk Monday - Friday from 1-5.  However, requesting these materials requires that patrons  are able to identify the work based on the bibliographic information provided in our catalog, which often does not do justice to the visual aspects and content of each piece.

Therefore, to better publicize their existence, two exhibitions were organized: one in 2011 and another in 2014.  The Environmental Design Library’s  beautiful glass exhibit cases provided a perfect venue to view the works and pages we’d selected to display, but we frequently heard visitors talk about how they wished they could interact with the artists books in their entirety. 

One of four display panels of artists’ books in our exhibit Design Book Art 2 in the winter of 2014.

Alex Selenitsch notes, “Typically, an artist’s book is a work that becomes evident as you hold it, open it up, go back and forth and then close it up again.  Often there is a controlled narrative built into the physicality of the book, so that size, weight, texture, stiffness and binding are foregrounded.  Nearly always a tangible experience of the book is necessary to absorb it totally.”  (Selenitsch, Alex, and National Gallery of Australia. Australian Artists Books. National Gallery of Australia, 2008.)

Our desire to provide that tangible experience led us and two university staff colleagues (Lauri Twitchell is a book artist working in the Landscape Architecture Department and Jennifer Osgood an artists’ book aficionado working in another campus library), to hold our first “Hands On: An Evening with Artists’ Books” event in August, 2015.  From 4-6 PM on a Friday we displayed 17 artists’ books on tables for guests to physically explore.  To foster a relaxed, convivial atmosphere we provided refreshments and encouraged students, faculty, community members, and library staff to come to the event as a way to start  their weekends.  The event was a success, mixing 35 artists’ book devotees and as well as interested faculty, students and library colleagues and administrators.

Visitors enjoying the tactile experience of our first Hands On artists’ book event, August 2015.

Two months later we held “Hands On-2” and publicized our artists’ book collection on our website with a LibGuide that included images of the works we would have at the event.  Incorporating static images of the artist’s books into an online guide made them more identifiable and memorable for library staff and patrons and we decided to expand the LibGuide to include images of the works being shown in our three subsequent events. We quickly realized we could unveil our entire artists’ book collection by providing images of each work in an “all artists books” tab and distribute it to faculty and interested patrons. In this way, we’ve created a comprehensive visual guide to our artists’ book collection supplemented by periodic in-house events that encourage  patrons to experience the works the way they were intended -- first hand.

Current LibGuide of all artists’ books in UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design Library

We’ll continue to hold Friday afternoon “hands on” events twice a semester and will update our LibGuide as we’re able to expand our artists’ book collection.  Our hope is that faculty will find ways to incorporate artists’ books into their courses on design and structure, and that university and community patrons will increasingly request to handle the books at our reference desk based on what they’ve seen online.  These artistic works are too beautiful to hide behind glass cases or bland bibliographic records and we keep looking for new ways to share them.

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David Eifler is the Environmental Design Librarian and Molly Rose the Environmental Design Library Circulation Supervisor at the University of California, Berkeley.


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