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A Portal to Unite the Smithsonian Libraries Artists’ Books Collection

A selection of artists' books at the AA/PG Library (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)
A selection of artists’ books at the AA/PG Library (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)

This month the Smithsonian Libraries Artists’ Books Collection launched an online platform that unifies artists’ books from across several Smithsonian collections. The site was announced last week, with a search that gathers over 600 titles.

Julie Chen, "World without end" (1999) (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)
Julie Chen, “World without end” (1999) (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries) (click to enlarge)

It may seem like a simple tool, but getting all the books into one search was a unique cataloguing challenge. As the site’s introduction page explains, even after being placed into the “artists’ books” category, the publications often “lack a title page, possess unique physical features, or have several creators,” making a functional search complicated.

“There had been no easy way to isolate artists’ books as a genre in our library catalog — a search would retrieve not only the art objects, but also books about artists’ books, and even completely unrelated items that simply had the words ‘books’ and ‘artists,'” Anne Evenhaugen, reference librarian for the Smithsonian’s American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, told Hyperallergic. “This was fixed with a little experimentation and fancy footwork from our cataloging department, and the work is ongoing to identify and retrospectively update our records. Other big challenges that we continue to face include the time, cost, and difficulty in describing each item with a vocabulary often unique to printmakers and bookbinders, not to mention the significant task of categorizing a book as an artist’s book, as so many examples defy easy identification.”

The project to get the Artists’ Books Collection site up was years in the making, with cross-institution collaboration from the Smithsonian American Art Museum/ National Portrait Gallery Library, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library, Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library, and the Warren M. Robbins Library at the National Museum of African Art.

Dating to the early 20th century, the materials range from editions collected by the Cooper Hewitt Library for their paper engineering and graphic design, to those at the Dibner Library selected for their relevance to the history of science and technology. The books include Thomas Parker Williams’ Cumulus with cut-out clouds of different shapes forming a changeable diorama, a shadow theatre version of Hansel and Gretel by Virginia Flynn and Joe Freedman, experiments in lines and colors by Sol Lewitt, and Kara Walker’s 3D silhouettes in Freedom: A FableThe portal also directs visitors to artists’ books-related content on the Smithsonian Libraries’ blog Unbound. And, of course, if a book from a Fluxus happening or an experimental narrative with pop-ups catches your eye, you can always make an appointment with the respective branch to see it in person as the artist intended.

Alisa C. Banks, "Storm sequence" (2011) (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)
Alisa C. Banks, “Storm sequence” (2011) (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)
Laura Davidson, "Fenway Park" (2008), tunnel book with six panels (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)
Laura Davidson, “Fenway Park” (2008), tunnel book with six panels (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)
Barbara Tetenbaum & Julie Chen, "Glimpse" (2011) (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)
Barbara Tetenbaum & Julie Chen, “Glimpse” (2011) (courtesy Smithsonian Libraries)

View the Smithsonian Libraries Artists’ Books on the new collection website

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