Artists' Books

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This page covers conservation and preservation concerns specific to artists' books, a genre that encompasses a wide variety of structures and materials. Topics discussed include bookbinding methods and materials commonly used by modern book artists, considerations for treatment, and challenges that artists' books present for housing, storage, handling, and display.

Wiki Compilers: Kim Norman and Michelle C. Smith
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Copyright 2024. The AIC Wiki is a publication of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC). It is published as a convenience for the members of AIC. Publication does not endorse nor recommend any treatments, methods, or techniques described herein. Information on researching with and citing the wiki can be found on the Reference and Bibliography Protocols page.

Cite this page:

American Institute for Conservation (AIC). "Artists' Books." AIC Wiki. May 22, 2024.

Background[edit | edit source]

(What is an artist's book? History and development of the genre (Drucker). Related genres/formats (some of these can be artist books): livre d'artistes, artist sketchbooks, fine art books with prints and photographs, little magazines/chapbooks, broadsides, photo books, fine binding, concrete poetry, visual poetry, collage, altered books, book sculptures, miniature books. What about artists' books that aren't books? Are all artists' books art? Where does the apostrophe go?)

Considerations for long-term care of artists' books[edit | edit source]

Types of artists' book collections[edit | edit source]

(Museum vs library settings; library special collections vs art library; teaching collections)

Editioned versus unique works[edit | edit source]

It may be possible for your institution to purchase multiple copies of an editioned artist's book that is expected to be heavily used. In this case, one copy can be designated as a "use copy" and the other as an "archival copy".

For editioned artists' books, problems observed with one copy may be present in other copies collected elsewhere. Conservators may find it helpful to connect with other institutions who own a copy of a particular book when planning a treatment, developing instructions for handling, or making other recommendations to curators. Other sources of useful information for conservators caring for editioned artists' books are book artists and publishers, who may retain records about the materials and processes used to create their books. The archives of Granary Books, for example, are held at Columbia University Libraries, and include detailed records about the production of each of their publications.

Living artists[edit | edit source]

(Artist interviews; involving artists in the treatment process; requesting replacement components)

Common structures[edit | edit source]

(Modern book arts as influenced by historical structures and techniques (Julia Miller); innovation of book artists to develop new structures (Hedi Kyle, Keith Smith).

Codex[edit | edit source]

(Does not need to be an exhaustive list as any structure may be used--what would be useful to conservators here? Some popular structures and techniques like exposed sewing methods, drumleaf binding, and others should probably be included, along with commercially produced bindings.)

Accordion and its derivatives[edit | edit source]

(Discuss historical exemplars from Asia. Listing the names of common variants may be helpful for conservators who need to describe books in documentation: flag, star, tunnel, etc.)

Scrolls and rolls[edit | edit source]

(Discuss historical exemplars; modern variations)

Other formats[edit | edit source]

(cards, broadsides, boxes filled with objects, objects, textiles/clothing items, etc.)

Common challenges and condition issues[edit | edit source]

(Perhaps open with a discussion of craftsmanship, experimentation, ephemerality, etc. Emphasize importance of a neutral approach.)

Unstable materials[edit | edit source]

Unusual structure/movement[edit | edit source]

(Includes books that don't "work" well or are difficult to handle)

Unusual size and/or shape[edit | edit source]

Loose or movable parts[edit | edit source]

Conservation treatment[edit | edit source]

Important considerations[edit | edit source]

(If a book is damaged because of how it moves/moved, how can we repair it while preserving the artist's intent? Can we know the artist's intent?)

When not to treat[edit | edit source]

Alternatives to treatment[edit | edit source]

(Limit/prohibit handling and instead use book models to demonstrate concepts during teaching; videos)

Housing and storage[edit | edit source]

See also: Housings

Housing all artists' books immediately upon acquisition is the best way to prevent damage from light, shelf wear, and other hazards while in storage. Artists' books are often acquired by libraries in brand new condition, and it doesn't take long for colored materials to fade, plastic boxes to become scratched, and handmade paper covers to become soiled and abraded. While we cannot and do not expect artists' books in libraries to remain pristine if they are to be used, we should make every reasonable effort to preserve the experience that the artist sought to create for their audience.

Housing aesthetics[edit | edit source]

For artists' books that will be handled by patrons in a reading room or used for teaching, it is important that housings are clearly distinguishable from the artists' work. While it can be tempting to create a housing that matches the artist's book in color or style, this practice may lead to confusion on the part of the user in discerning where the book ends and your housing begins. Four-flaps made from plain folder stock, corrugated clamshell boxes, and cloth clamshell boxes in neutral colors are good options. Consistent style and labeling across the collection will also help distinguish library housings.

Protecting artists' housings[edit | edit source]

Tips for challenging books[edit | edit source]

(Huge, tiny, weird shaped, scrolls, etc.)

Handling[edit | edit source]

(Providing written instructions in the housing; handling videos created by conservation and added to the catalog; training reading room staff on particularly difficult books. Monitoring teaching use of artists' books and avoiding using the same book over and over.)

Exhibition and display[edit | edit source]

See also: Exhibition, Supports, and Transport

Book arts and conservation[edit | edit source]

There is significant overlap between the fields of book arts and book conservation. Many book arts educators include preservation principles in their curriculum, and many conservation professionals are also book artists. MFA Book Arts programs at the University of Iowa Center for the Book and the University of the Arts have (or have had) a focus on book conservation, employing book conservators Gary Frost and Hedi Kyle, respectively, as faculty. Book artists and conservators also share space professionally in the Guild of Bookworkers and the Book_Arts-L listserv.

With this in mind, conservators tasked with caring for artists' book collections may want to tap into this shared community. Our colleagues in other conservation disciplines who treat contemporary art are familiar with the practice of involving living artists in their treatments. This practice may also be applicable to the treatment and care of artists' books (see Living artists).

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Boehme, Doro. 2007. “Using and Conserving Artists’ Books at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.” Art Libraries Journal 32 (2): 36-39.

Campbell, Brenna., Scott Gerson, and Erika Mosier. 2013. “Conservation of Dieter Roth's Snow.” The Book and Paper Group Annual 32: 16-21.

Chemero, A., C. Seigel, and T. Wilson. 2000. “How Libraries Collect and Handle Artists' Books.” Art Documentation 19 (1): 22–25.

Frost, Gary. 2005. "Reading by Hand: The Haptic Evaluation of Artists' Books." The Bonefolder 2 (1): 3-6.

Grandal Montero, Gustavo, Ana Paula Hirata Tanaka, and Erica Foden-Lenahan. 2013. "Defending the Aesthetic: The Conservation of an Artist’s Book." Art Libraries Journal 38 (1): 32-37.

Metzger, Chela and Michelle C. Smith. 2021. "Preserving Movement and Meaning in Artists' Books." Parenthesis 41:37-49.

History of this page[edit | edit source]

This page was created in April 2022 by Michelle C. Smith.

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