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Re: Artists' books in the library (fwd)

[For those who like such things, a terminological polemic follows this
response to Susan's question.]


Having spent the last three months studying artists' books in
libraries/ museums in France and Germany, I have a few thoughts to
offer on your proposal.  While I acknowledge that closed stacks are an
important precaution when it comes to protecting valuable books, I have
to admit that I always cringe when I hear that phrase.  There are, I
think, a couple of issues at stake.  First, cataloguing has >got< to
become more precise, especially in libraries whose closed stack
policies means that book requests need to be in hours or even days
before the books arrive on my desk.  Now I understand that this plea
for >more< Cartesianism will probably rub some people the wrong way,
but consider the plight of the scholar who is only allowed to call for
a small number of books at a time and has little else to go on besides
a vague indication that book X is "an artist's book" (whatever that
means, but see below). Second, conservators have got to be taught that
books and their structures are interrelated in a fundamental way.  This
seems obvious enough, but in one library I visited, I was told that I
could look at the binding for a book in the Special Collections Dept.,
but that I would need to go to the regular reading room (1-2 hr wait
for a seat; 1 hr for the book) to study the text!  In many respects,
what I'm describing is nothing new: there have always been librarians
who feel that their job is defend the books from the patrons, but to
>force< a distinction between form and content - a distinction which
many artists' books explicitly try to do away with - is to do real
violence to the bookworks the library hopes to "conserve."

Now to be fair I have to admit that I also met librarians - some of
whom thought of themselves as 'conservators' - who did everything they
could to help me find books, get them quickly, and study them with
appropriate - but not excessive - care.  Wonderful as it was to work
with these people, I find it worrisome that when they move on their
collections may fall into less generous hands, a prospect which makes
the need to evaluate how such collections are handled all the more

In the final analysis, I suppose I'm prepared to put up with difficult
personalities if the institution has really interesting books. I won't
>like< it, and I'll do everything I can to find the materials in a
place where working conditions are better, but if push comes to shove,
I'll go where the books are.  The cataloguing issue, however, needs
some serious re-thinking.  I've spoken to at least one curator who,
recognizing that the current cataloguing scheme at her institution made
it impossible to differentiate between an industrially produced book
and an artist's book (unless you know the author/publisher, which can't
always be the case), took it upon herself to implement a wonderful
`kludge' that allows patrons to find artists' books in the catalogue.
Her efforts saved me much time and aggravation, and I hope I live to
see the day when the trend catches on.

As to the question "what is an artists' book?" I really must protest
Charles Alexander's use of the term 'livre d'artiste' as a way of
saying what the artist's book is not.  He writes:

: What I find most librarians, and museum
: directors and curators, and other people in the arts at large, think when
: you say "artists' books" or "book arts" -- is *livres d'artiste* -- which
: to me are more complicated in their relationship to both artists' books and
: book arts than the latter two are to each other. Just that in many cases in
: the *livres d'artiste* the artist actually had nothing to do with the
: making of the book -- although not in all cases.

Charles is not the first person - not by a long shot - to indulge in
this bit of anglocentrism, and I'm sure he won't be the last.  That
said, there is certainly no shortage of francophones making books that
are indeed "artist's books," only they call them... livres d'artiste.
For French scholars who are sensitive to the mostly negative
associations that Americans project onto what is, in French, a pretty
common - and therefore just as vague as its literal translation is to
most English speakers - expression, this has resulted in some rather
amusing verbal gymnastics.  Still, there are plenty of examples of
scholars/institutions/artists using the term in France without meaning
anything other than what Charles calls "the artist's book."  In May,
for example, Anne Moeglin-Delcroix is curating a major exhibition at
the Bibliotheque Nationale whose title is "le livre d'artiste."
Paradoxically, M-D has, to my knowledge, one of the strictest
definitions of the "livre d'artiste" (used now in Charles' sense of
'artist's book'). To wit, a bookwork produced in the 60s and 70s using
industrial techniques with more or less explicit ties to conceptual art
movements.  Now as it happens, I disagree with her definition
altogether, as do many in France and elsewhere, but the fact remains
that the term "livre d'artiste" is considerably richer than its
unfortunate American usage would seem to suggest.

In all fairness to Charles, I should make it clear that he was
plainly reporting on an attitude which is quite common in libraries
and other institutions, which he took pains to qualify.  He also
didn't use the French term as a catchall for a rather diverse set
of artistic practices which Johanna Drucker, for example, too
harshly dismisses as being "brain dead."  Still, I insist that
using this term to mean anything other than what it says can
only result in further misunderstandings.  What a pity it would be
if someone `missed' the books put out by Editions/Sixtus or
Bertrand Dorny or Anne Walker or Claude Closky or [you fill in
the blank] simply because they were labelled "livres d'artiste"!

By the way, I was interested to note that in Germany, the terms
Mahlerbuecher and Kunstlerbuecher are used more or less
interchangeably.  This first term used to have more weight in
English/French than it does now - livre de peintre => painter's book -
but at some point we ended up using only the second.  But that for
another day.

Best wishes,
Eric D. Friedman

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