Artists’ Books at the Smithsonian Libraries

For the past two summers, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library (HMSG), the National Museum of African Art Library (NMAA), and the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery (AA/PG) Library have hosted graduate library student interns to work on the three libraries’ artists’ book collections. Each library has a history of collecting artists’ books with distinctly different goals. Books in the HMSG Library have been acquired to support the museum’s collection; artists’ books in NMAA were collected as examples of African art and those purchased for the AA/PG library have been obtained primarily for aesthetic reasons. Under the coordination of Anna Brooke (HMSG) and in partnership with Janet Stanley (NMAA) and Doug Litts (AA/PG), the internships were developed to define the issues regarding artists’ books in library collections and to determine ways to provide greater accessibility to them in the online catalog with the ultimate goal of providing more exposure to one of the Smithsonian Libraries’ many hidden collections.

The 2011 internship addressed fundamental issues of defining artists’ books, surveying the three collections, and developing recommendations for enhanced cataloging. The internship also included field trips to many DC-area artist book collections, including the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and George Mason University.

Amanda Meeks and Michelle Strizever were selected for the 2012 internship. Amanda is finishing up her MLS at Emporia State University and studied Book and Paper Arts. Michelle is also completing her MLS at the University of Maryland and for her Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania she wrote her dissertation on artists’ books.

Meeks and Strizever

Amanda Meeks (left in photo) and Michelle Strizever organized the exhibit of selections from the AA/PG artists’ book collection. Photo: Doug Litts

They summarized the nature and scope of the project:

“For six weeks we worked collaboratively to make the hidden artists’ book collection more accessible and more visible to the public through addressing cataloging issues and highlighting items found within the collection. 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.”

Amanda and Michelle carefully examined and researched several books from the collections and will soon be posting about them on the Smithsonian Libraries blog (such as this entry by Michelle). They also assembled a small exhibit of six books from the AA/PG collection that they found particularly interesting. On July 18, the AA/PG Library hosted an opening reception for the exhibit featuring these books as well as twelve others from the collection. More than fifty attendees, including Smithsonian staff, local librarians, and book art enthusiasts, heard details about the ongoing project and examined the selections from the collection.


Photo: Doug Litts

Amanda elaborated: “This internship was particularly interesting to me because I am a book artist and hope to work with artists’ book collections in my future as an art librarian.  My MLS program does not offer courses in art librarianship, but my personal interests and goals led me to the SIL professional development program.  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.”

Michelle described her experience: “This internship helped me shift from a reader/critic to a curator/librarian of artists’ books.  My background is in literary criticism and theory, and my subject has often been artists’ books.  The things I love about artists’ books as a reader – their unpredictability, innovative structures, unconventional materials, playful texts, interdisciplinary nature, even their difficulty – are the qualities that make them so prickly for librarians.  They can be expensive, problematic to catalog, demanding to exhibit, complicated to access physically and digitally, and hard to preserve.  Through this project, I’ve met librarians who find that the rewards of collecting artists’ books outweigh the challenges.  It’s been exciting to help develop solutions and see them being implemented.  In addition, putting together the exhibition and writing blogs about works from the collection has shown me that there’s still a place for my critical, analytical side as a librarian.”

Thanks to their diligent efforts and the enthusiastic response from our colleagues, the Smithsonian Libraries is looking forward to potential collaborative projects in the field of artists’ books.

The exhibit is on view through the end of 2012. Information about visiting the AAPG Library is available here.


Contributed by Doug Litts, Head Librarian, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery

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