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Hidden Collection — Artist’s Books

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) has a “hidden collection” of artists’ books that is underused by researchers and the public. Artists’ books are diverse in form and concept, making them difficult to define. Some are handmade, published as unique works or in limited editions. Others are inexpensive and mass-produced, available for nearly everyone to purchase and consume. Despite these differences, scholars generally agree that an artist’s book is a book or book-like object that reflects an artist’s creative vision and is intended as a work of art. Our assignment this summer was to investigate the SIL’s artist’s book collection, consider it in the context of other local collections, and develop a proposal to increase access to this relatively unknown resource.


Stephanie and Chloe with National Museum of African Art librarian Janet Stanley, photograph by Sam Schubert.

Our internship is part of a collaborative effort among three SIL branch libraries to bring their artists’ books holdings to light. We spent significant time examining the collections of artists’ books at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library, the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, and the Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art. We also conducted research on artists’ books as a genre, focusing specifically on the challenges they present to art libraries. We first consulted librarians Anna Brooke, Doug Litts, and Janet Stanley about their collections, and then we met with rare books cataloger Diane Shaw and metadata librarian Doug Dunlop to explore ways to improve access via the library’s catalog, an artist’s book blog, or a database of digital images.

A major component of our internship was a series of research visits to other local libraries and artists’ books collections. These visits greatly informed our overall understanding of artists’ books, refined our definition of the genre, and improved our ability to analyze the books in the Smithsonian’s collection. They also gave us the opportunity to meet professionals knowledgeable about the creation, distribution, curation, and exhibition of artists’ books, including librarians, curators, book artists, and booksellers.

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we met Krystyna Wasserman, the curator of book arts. She oversees a rotating display of artists’ books in the library’s reading room and curates the museum’sBook as Art exhibition series. During a visit to the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room at the Library of Congress, Mark Dimunation showed us a small percentage of the nation’s impressive artist’s book collection. He expressed a desire to increase the collection’s visibility and use, a concern that other librarians echoed. We also met with Lamia Doumato, head of reader services at the National Gallery of Art library, who showed us a selection of artists’ books that are now on exhibit in the museum.


Chloe and Stephanie study artists’ books at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, photograph by Anna Brooke

Another enlightening visit was our trip to the Corcoran College of Art + Design, where librarian Mario Ascencio collects artists’ books that refer to the theme “social consciousness.” He also acquires books that are excellent teaching resources for the college’s book arts program. We learned how private booksellers market and sell artists’ books during our visit to Joshua Heller Rare Books, Inc. Joshua and Phyllis Heller, the owners, taught us the importance of networking with artists and impressed upon us the very personal nature of the bookselling business.

Toward the end of our internship, we toured Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, an art community that specializes in papermaking, printmaking, and artists’ books. Their artistic director, Gretchen Schermerhorn, showed us how to make paper and how to create letterpress prints using movable type. These research visits brought us full circle, allowing us to explore everything from the creation of the artist’s book to its exhibition.


Detail of the artists’ books display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library,
photograph by Stephanie Fletcher

Our research culminated in a report that included a survey of the artists’ books holdings at the Smithsonian, recommendations for improving access to the collection, a proposal of themes for a future exhibition, and an extensive bibliography. We also created a small exhibit of artists’ books at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, which will be on display for the next year. Our internship was a headlong foray into the world of artists’ books. We emerged deeply informed and excited to reveal this “hidden collection.”

Stephanie Fletcher and Chloe Barnett

Stephanie Fletcher and Chloe Barnett are Smithsonian Institution Library interns. Stephanie holds an MA in art history from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and is an MLIS student at Dominican University. Chloe received an MA in art history and an MSIS from the University of Texas, Austin and recently accepted a job as arts and humanities librarian at Bucknell University.

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