Our day ‘Unpacking the Library’

On the 23rd September, a group of librarians, researchers and artists met in the art deco surroundings of the Tetley in Leeds to discuss issues and current ideas around the collection of, and access to, artists’ books within the library setting. In this post Jane Pendlebury and Jeremy Parrett share their thoughts about the symposium and how the issues raised relate to the artists’ books collection at Manchester Met University.

Exterior of the Tetley in Leeds

Exterior of the Tetley in Leeds

This was the second symposium organised by the Artists’ Writings & Publications Research Centre at Leeds University (AWP) and brought together an interesting line-up of speakers.  We were welcomed by Chris Taylor, of the AWP, who set the friendly tone for the day and offered some useful context for the themes of the symposium.  Chris began by relating how a recent relocation at Leeds had required the packing and unpacking of a number of book collections.  This process had resulted in his being reacquainted with many individual books and had stimulated a number of questions about how best to reproduce this activity of ‘unpacking’ the artists’ books held within library collections; be it through access, display or handling.

Chris was followed by Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. Richard spoke of the great depth and range of the book collections at the British Library, exploring the positive and negative aspects of large or ‘hyper’ library collections and outlined his ideal that libraries should provoke and stimulate creative activity and act as ‘nodes’ or ‘hubs’ within communities. Richard acknowledged that what he described as ‘liberation’ librarianship requires a level of access and handling which might be potentially destructive to the book.  He also proposed some interesting theories on what constituted an artist’s book, challenging conventional definitions of the genre in terms of date range, intentionality and content.

The next paper was from Karen Di Franco, PhD researcher at Tate Libraries and Archives and the University of Reading. She drew upon her research within archival collections to explore the history of artists’ publishing and its place within contemporary art practice. Amongst other things, Karen’s talk raised questions about the way in which archival and non-conventional published material held in libraries is organised and housed.  The library in the Warburg institute was presented as an interesting example.

The afternoon session was led by Elizabeth James, Senior Librarian in charge of collections at the National Art Library.  The emphasis again was on issues of collecting, access and display as hinted at in the title of her introduction to the session; ‘Artists’ Books in captivity’. In an attempt to address what she described as ‘discontents’ around these issues and the place of artists’ books within library collections Elizabeth presented a series of questions to a panel of artists working within the field of book arts. This led to a wide ranging discussion which touched upon areas such as the artists’ attitudes to their books being collected by libraries, who their ideal reader might be and how they would like their work to be displayed. Elizabeth also spoke about her desire to establish a network of libraries and artists in order to exchange ideas on how to explore further the potential of artists’ book collections.

The day raised many interesting points that can be related to the artists’ book collection at MMU Special Collections. In particular within the areas of access, handing and display.  All of our artists’ books are on open shelves and therefore available to browse by any visitors to the collection.  We see this level of access as one of the essential functions of a library from which artists’ books should not be excluded. To do so may result in marginalised and underused collections.   However, we also recognise the responsibility of a library to look after the material in its care and acknowledge the challenges and potential contradictions in our approach. Our artists’ books are heavily used, especially in the context of group visits and as a consequence are subject to unavoidable wear and tear.  We attempt to mitigate against this in a number of ways including strict handling guidelines, active conservation and the rotation of material selected for display.  Despite this, there are occasions when the use of a book has to be restricted.   Such compromises seem irresolvable and, particularly in respect of artists’ books, concerns around access, handling and display will always be present. This is why an ongoing exchange of ideas and discussions, either at events such as the AWP symposium or within a network of libraries and artists as suggested by Elizabeth James, is essential if artists books are to remain a dynamic and valued part of library collections.



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