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Artists’ books: emphasizing the physical book in an era of digital collections

By Michael Levine-Clark

Probably like most librarians, I went to library school because I loved books and associated libraries with some of my fondest book-related memories. In my childhood, and through college, I used libraries to find books. Occasionally I used periodicals or even microfiche, but the library, to me, was all about the books. I learned in library school that library collections were becoming increasingly digital, and that most of the things libraries purchased were journals; already, in the mid-1990s, the collection was much more than an aggregation of monographs, and had been for a long time. But students coming to use the library had no choice but to encounter books, and it would have been very difficult to complete any research assignment without using some print publications.

Penrose Library, University of Denver (11-19-12). Creative Commons License.
Today, at my own library — the University of Denver’s Penrose Library — it’s pretty easy for a student to use the library daily without ever setting foot in the building, and without ever needing to use tangible collections. Over half of the records in our catalog point to digital content, and we now spend 72% of a $5.4 million materials budget on electronic resources.

Overall, electronic resources are a good thing — an amazing thing. They can be used by students wherever they happen to be; they can be searched in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago; they free up valuable shelf space; and they make available incredible content that would have required focused research trips when I was in college. Resources like Early English Books Online or London Low Life — just two of hundreds available to University of Denver students — make it possible to conduct primary research at levels impossible at most universities not too long ago.

But we have done such an amazing job building digital collections that students can attend the University of Denver without ever needing to touch paper publications, without ever having to encounter physical books — and that’s a shame. There is value to the book as a physical object, and libraries need to find ways to emphasize that value to digital natives.

At the University of Denver, we decided to emphasize books — while still committing strongly to our digital collections — by increasing funding for special collections. Within that context, we began collecting artists’ books heavily about five years ago and now have a collection of almost 900 titles, many of them unique. There are larger and more important collections at many libraries, but our collection is quickly becoming significant.

Artists’ books are works of art, books where the container is as important as the content, and books that call out to be handled. When done well, artists’ books can impact all of our senses. Direction of the Road, by Ursula K. Le Guin, produced in an elaborate edition by Foolscap Press, uses the texture of the paper to mimic the rustling of leaves. And this book’s use of anamorphic art always surprises readers. But artists’ books can also be quite simple. A Diction, a small but powerful book, shaped like a pint glass, uses simple text and white space to capture the experience of addiction.

As students become less and less used to physical books, this collection gives them a chance to immerse themselves in the book. It is a reminder that libraries have always been about books, and will continue to be about books even when most of our collections become digital.

There are some terrific resources for learning more about artists’ books. Vamp & Tramp Booksellers — besides having a wonderful name and being run by wonderful people — has a great website that makes it easy to get a sense of the books they carry. Joshua Heller Rare Books and Priscilla Juvelis have great selections as well. And the Guild of Book Workers maintains a useful list of Book Arts Links.

Michael Levine-Clark is the Associate Dean for Scholarly Communication and Collections Services at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library. He is co-editor of the journal Collaborative Librarianship, co-editor of The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science, 4th edition, and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, 4th edition. He has been a member or chair of many committees within library organizations, and has served on a variety of national and international publisher and vendor library advisory boards. He writes and speaks regularly on strategies for improving academic library collection development practices, including the use of e-books in academic libraries and the development of demand-driven acquisition (DDA) models. Read his previous blog posts: “An academic librarian without a library” and “Replacing ILL with temporary leases of ebooks.”

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Image credit: Photograph of Steacie Science and Engineering Library at York University by Raysonho@Open Grid Scheduler. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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