By Marsha Taichman
The Artists’ Books Collection at the Fine Arts Library (FAL) at Cornell University is fairly unique, as it is a teaching collection housed in the open stacks of the library. This means that anyone who comes into the library can go to the shelves in the reference section of the library, take the books, envelopes, and boxes of books off of the shelves and open them up, flipping through pages, pulling tabs, and unfolding fold-outs. These books are relatively inexpensive and durable. The books don’t generally circulate, but we can make exceptions if they are needed for a class or an exhibition.
When I arrived at Cornell in 2012, the protocol for artists’ books was to send them to the Rare & Manuscript Collection (RMC) if they were purchased, came in on approval, or were found in the stacks. The History of Art Librarian and Head of Research & Learning Services, Susette Newberry, suggested that we start an artists’ books collection at FAL, specifically for the purposes of teaching. I curate the collection, and Susette was instrumental to its inception. The books that we select for the collection are relatively inexpensive (they all cost less than $350), are contemporary (they were created after 1990), and are durably constructed. The very expensive artists’ books are held at the Rare & Manuscript Collection (RMC) in Kroch Library and can be viewed by appointment.
Artists’ books are quite literally artworks that take on some kind of book format. They push the boundaries of traditional reading while maintaining the intimate relationship that a book fosters between object and reader. They often employ techniques of the craft of bookmaking, such as bookbinding, papermaking, and printmaking, and there are no rules for their construction. Structures can include decks of cards, postcards, flip books, tunnel books, sculptures, puzzles, scrolls, and, of course, the standard codex. In the most successful examples, form and content work together to express the artist’s ideas.
Cornell University shut down on March 13, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. RMC and FAL were closed to the public for months, but both have now reopened for research by appointment on October 12, 2020, and April 15, 2021 respectively. Researchers can book a time to come in and consult specific materials that they request in advance (in the case of RMC), or schedule a time to browse the stacks at FAL.
The pandemic allowed for some of FAL’s artists’ books collection to be displayed at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, our campus art museum. The museum has allowed Cornell art students to exhibit in their space while they stay open for limited viewing hours during COVID. Two master’s of Fine Arts students, Grace Sachi Troxell and Morgan Evans-Weiler, and I used this as an opportunity to hold a book art exhibition this past February. We selected materials from the library collection, and exhibited them alongside books made by faculty, students, staff, and other interested community members. Numerous students and classes in a variety of disciplines came to see the exhibition, and, afterwards, I provided an instruction session to an English class focused on the history of books where I showed installation shots of the exhibition and discussed our exhibition process.
Beyond our exhibition, teaching with artists’ books this year has been an exercise in working with digital surrogates. During this time when the public has not been allowed in the Fine Arts Library, I have worked with our Digital Consulting and Productions Services to photograph the entire collection of artists’ books, which includes more than 70 titles. I selected numerous views of each of the titles to photograph digitally so that I can teach with them in Zoom classes, and so that a thumbnail representation of each book could accompany its bibliographic record in the library catalog, as can be seen with this record. My hope is that this addition will make artists’ books more discoverable and enticing to patrons.
One advantage of teaching with artists’ books is that some of the objects speak for themselves – they can be shocking, fascinating, and thought-provoking in their formats and structures. In my experience, it is more difficult to engage students in classes when teaching online. So much of what appeals to me about artists’ books is their tactility, and seeing digital images strips them of much of their dimensionality and some of their character. I have had to radically rethink methods of engagement for the Zoom setting. It is helpful to have as many pictures as possible of different views of an object, particularly if it is not a standard codex. I also have physical copies of numerous books that I describe in classes at home, and I can show them live, providing examples of both print books that can be manipulated and images of other books that can only be experienced through still photographs.
I encourage students to ask questions about the books. I ask the students a lot of questions about what they see, what they think the books mean, and how they function. By asking them questions, it is my hope that not only they will respond, but that they will feel free to respond with additional questions. I often start out classes asking for help with defining artists’ books and what constitutes a book. Then I show them something outrageous, like Ian Huebert’s Beans, which is comprised of a coffee can that the reader is invited to open to reveal a printed muslin bag containing a 9 foot scroll, block printed on both sides to illustrate a fairy tale of a wolf and a magic beanstalk. Is this still a book? I wonder aloud. It encourages discussion and sometimes even debate.
I tell people to ask questions while I am teaching and to please interrupt me so that the questions are still relevant as we go along. This might mean that I take less time describing a different book, and so be it. Students can always make appointments to see individual titles at a later time. In pre-COVID times, people could walk into the library and use the books anytime we were open, but now there is research by appointment, which makes access more controlled, but not impossible.
While I welcome the prospect of in-person teaching resuming, Zoom instruction has posed interesting opportunities and challenges for working with artists’ books. In a similar vein, students are eager to get back to campus to see and handle these books, and I am glad that the online learning opportunities have encouraged such excitement. To be honest, I have not had many research consultations with students outside of class sessions, but that is often the case with in-person teaching with artists’ books as well. And that’s part of the beauty of the collection when people have physical access to it: They are free to go in to the library and look at the collections unassisted.
Marsha Taichman is the Visual Resources & Public Services Librarian at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.