The first drawing in the LA Liber Amicorum comes from street artist Axis.

The first drawing in the “LA Liber Amicorum” comes from street artist Axis. (via

In the days of yearbooks (do schools make them anymore?), I remember grade school students would draw in each other’s and leave short messages and notes. This adolescent practice continues for most of us in the concept of the Facebook wall, where we often post funny photos and comments on our friends’ pages.

But if you’ve ever wondered what drives us to post and share in the first place, then the 17th-century practice of the liber amicorum, or book of friends, might have some answers. On a recent trip to the Getty Research Institute (with thanks to a tour and introduction from the USC Annenberg / Getty Arts fellowship program), I came across a liber amicorum owned by one Johann Heinrich Gruber, a merchant in Nuremberg. The book contained beautiful drawings from his friends, and as we learned, this book functioned in many ways like Facebook or a yearbook: with this collection of quotes and drawings, Herr Gruber was able to demonstrate his social status to others.

The Sack of Troy, drawn by Tobias Bernhard (ca. 1602–12), from Johan Heinrich Gruber’s liber amicorum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The institute took this liber one step further and, in a tribute to LA’s rich street art culture, invited street artists from around the city to contribute to a new publication, the LA Liber Amicorum. Nearly 150 artists participated, each contributing one sheet of drawings. These were all compiled into a book with “LA” emblazoned on the front — “LA,” of course, could reference either Los Angeles or Liber Amicorum — and it now graces the institute’s collection.

“The liber amicorum, which translates into ‘book of friends,’ was a 16th and 17th century fad,” David Brafman, the institute’s curator of rare books, told KCET’s Artbound. “Like a yearbook, you have these blank bound books and you go around and get people to add a coat of arms, or a painting, or a poem. It becomes part of your social identity and your networking.”

The cover of the “LA Liber Amicorum” (image courtesy the Getty Research Institute)

What makes this project so provocative is how it draws connections between 17th-century vernacular art practices, the social/collaborative nature of contemporary street art, and the importance of documentation and archives. Although not without its controversy, it’s a terrific example of how to breathe life into museum collections and bring those collections to the public in a new way. And the best part? Both Gruber’s book and the LA Liber Amicorum are fully digitized and available online.

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An Xiao

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio...