What's Next for the Artists' Books Collection?

      Over the course of the last year, I have worked on creating a collection inventory of the artists' books collection at UNCG. The resulting product is meant to be a living document--one that is reviewed and updated regularly with new acquisitions or transfers from circulating collections in Jackson Library.

     The collection inventory, provided the necessary data to conduct an initial analysis of the collection strengths and gaps. That investigation has informed an Artists' Books Collection Development Policy. A collection development policy can describe the history of a collection, how it is used and by whom, as well as guide staff in making acquisition decisions. 

     Historically, collection decisions may have been guided by a desire to complete a collection of an artist's work, to support curriculum or instruction, or simply because an artist's book was remarkable in its production or content. Though those are all valid reasons for acquisitions decisions, the policy will help home in on what our priorities should be.

A pop-up exhibition of items from the
Artists' Books Collection, 2019
     The collection is regularly used in instructional sessions with classes, such as creative writing, history, and studio art. It is also frequently used in exhibitions as well as being available for onsite research for individuals, classes, or other researchers interested in the collection. Understanding how the collection has been used historically has informed the collection development policy as well as a list of recommendations for increasing the discoverability and findability of the collection and expanding the use of the collection.

     Despite the variety of artists’ books specimens already in the collection, the primary focus for building the collection is to select artists’ books that support the curriculum and instruction of UNCG students and to align with other collecting strengths within Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA). As UNCG began as a college for women, some of those strengths include the history of women in the military, women’s literature, Home Economics pamphlets and cookbooks, as well as physical education and performing arts among others. SCUA has also prioritized collecting examples of a variety of binding and printing methods. 

     Moving forward, in addition to the prior listed categories, new acquisitions will focus on artists or authors from North Carolina or subject matter related to North Carolina. Likewise, SCUA is committed to building a more diverse and inclusive collection of artists and authors represented in the Artists’ Books Collection, including those of any race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

     The acquisition decisions are made collaboratively with the SCUA Department Head, the Rare Books Specialist, and other library faculty and staff with relevant expertise. Periodically, artists’ books may be identified among Jackson Library’s circulating collections and transferred to SCUA to become part of the Artists’ Books Collection, as noted in an earlier blog post.

Ellen Knudsen's work for CAUSE:EFFECT,
a collaborative book project exhibited in 2019

     Although SCUA endeavors to represent a broad range of examples of artists’ books, the nature of the field of artists’ books is quite expansive and we are unable to adequately represent books of every type and category. In spite of this, there are very few items we will not consider for the collection. Those include books containing hate speech or related offensive contents, those of questionable structure or materials that may be challenging to preserve or store, or those that are simply too costly for us.

     In addition to building the collection, SCUA is exploring ways to increase the visibility of the collection through various methods, such as outreach events, exhibitions, or modifying descriptions of artists' books in our online catalog to improve search results. Likewise, we will continue to investigate methods of increasing the use of the collection, such as creating a visual reference guide to the collection or creating lists of titles related to various subjects or other characteristics. For example, creating a list of titles about nature or a list of books using a certain binding or printing method. In any case, the goal is to make it easier to find and enjoy the artists' books collection at UNCG. We look forward to being able to welcome visitors in to see the artists' books collection in person once pandemic restrictions have lifted and it is safe to do so. 


Making a List and Checking it Twice: Collection Composition and Analysis

     Over the last year, I have been taking inventory of the artists' books collection. It might seem like an inventory list should have already existed or that there should at least be an easy way to assemble one from the library's catalog. It is unfortunately a little more complicated than that for a number of reasons, perhaps most salient is that not all of the artists' books specimens are cataloged as such.

The LOC Genre/Form Term for Arists' Books was created in 2017

     As mentioned previously, it is possible to search for artists' books in the library's catalog by using the Library of Congress (LC) Subject Headings listed in each catalog entry. If you locate one artist's book, you can use the LC subject headings to link to other books of the same type or subject. That said, there are some glitches in trying to locate the books this way. See my previous post for an explanation of artists' books versus artists' books specimens. Another example is that the artists' books genre heading only came into being in 2017. Artists' books were being collected at UNCG for decades before the artists' books genre heading was created so many books did not receive the designation. And, since there is a great deal of debate about what defines an artist's book some may be listed under other subject headings, such as poetry, children's literature, etc. Our fantastic cataloging team have worked hard to update records as needed, but to retroactively ensure all entries have this genre heading could be very time consuming. The collection inventory I have created may be a great resource for updating those records eventually, perhaps it would be a great project for an intern. 

A few rows of the collection inventory spreadsheet

     The collection inventory began with creating a spreadsheet. One goal was to capture relevant bibliographical information, such as the titles, book artists or authors, publication dates, etc. To increase the usefulness of the inventory, it was also important to capture a list of the physical characteristics and subjects of each book. Physical characteristics included the bookbinding and printing methods used, but I was also able to note any needed repairs or other unique characteristics. In many cases, the subjects of books were already collected as part of the description in the catalog entry. Yet, if the subject was not immediately clear to the cataloger through the book itself, such as in a colophon or associated descriptive materials, no subject is listed. Likewise, there is often the consideration that by including such details in a catalog entry, it may influence or preempt a reader's experience of the artist's book. As this collection is regularly used to support instructional sessions with classes, it was important for the inventory to include at least general references to the subject matter in the books. For example, if I were sharing books with a creative writing class, I might want to be able to pull titles related to their course content, such as poetry, or to pull examples of a specific format, such as chapbooks.

Discussing chapbooks with Creative Writing graduate students

     Once the inventory was created it was time to check the list and determine the collection's strengths and better define its focus. It is important to note that the collection inventory should be considered a living document as it will never really be finished. Additional discoveries may be made of artists' books already in the collection or, in the case of new acquisitions, the list will need to be updated regularly. The ultimate goal is to use the inventory analysis to inform a collection development policy for this collection. Kathelene McCarty Smith, Interim Head of SCUA, sometimes refers potential acquisitions of artists' books as "a box of puppies", meaning that there is often so much to love about them that it can be a challenge to make selections. For that reason, it is important to have a collection development policy to drive decision making around new acquisitions rather than buying every "adorable puppy" that comes along, which would be easy to do if funding sources were infinite. 

     Using the spreadsheet as a sorting tool, the list of artists' books specimens were sorted in several different ways to achieve a rough assessment of collection strengths. For instance, when sorting by publication date, it was easier to determine how many books were created in a certain decade. Or, when sorting by artist or author, it was clear which artists were more heavily represented in the collection. Using this method, the following strengths surfaced:

Sorting by publication date revealed which time
periods are best represented in the collection

     When sorted by publication dates in decades, our two strongest are not surprisingly the 1990s and 2000s. We have a good number in the 1960s and 1970s and fall off a bit in the 1980s. The spread of publication dates overall definitely follows along with the history of making in the field of artists' books. The most represented artists or authors represented in the collection were Amos P. Kennedy (Jubalee/Jubilee/Kennedy & Sons Press), Ed Hutchins (Editions Press), Lois Morrison, and Morris Cox (Gogmagog Press). Janus Press (Claire Van Vliet) and Flying Fish Press (Julie Chen) are also fairly well represented. The split between male and female artists represented in the collection was nearly even. There were several collaborations between both male and females as well as a few artists whose gender is unknown/unidentified, so this category is obviously somewhat problematic, and possibly unnecessary, to define.

     As for binding method or structure, accordions, miniatures, pamphlets, codices, sculptural book works, and toy/movable books are well represented. The most represented printing methods were letterpress and offset, though there are several hand printed methods used that were difficult to confidently identify when conducting the inventory. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of variety of the printing methods used in the collection.

Diaries by Dieter Roth (Image: Yale Books)
Letters, correspondence, and diaries are
common subjects of the artists' books collection

     And finally, there are many titles that overlap more than one subject area, but the following categories surfaced most commonly:

  • proverbs/folk tales/folklore/mythology
  • poetry
  • women/gender issues
  • social or political issues/war
  • death
  • animals/nature/seasons
  • letters/correspondence/diaries
  • maps/navigation/world

     The next step in this process will be to draft the Artists' Books Collection Development Policy. If you would like to continue to read along, please subscribe to this blog by clicking the link in the sidebar.


Bradley, F. (Ed.). (2012, September 25). Dieter Roth: Diaries. https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300185492/dieter-roth. 


Various Small Decisions and Milk, 2021

In my first post about discovering the artists' books collection at UNC Greensboro, I mentioned that along with the artists' books in special collections, I have often come across artists' books which are housed in Jackson Library's circulating collections. I discovered some of them by searching in the library's online catalog for the call number for artists' books specimens, which is N7433.4. I have found others by using the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), press names, or other links listed within the catalog record. And I have found yet others by searching artists' names I discovered by reading various articles and books about artists' books. 

Arrows indicate links to other resources in the same categories

One of the many things I learned as I was first searching in the catalog is that there are books which fall under the LCSH category "artists' books" as well as a heading for "artists' books specimens". Items in the former category might include reference books, exhibition catalogs, or other books about artists' books. Items in the latter category are the actual artists' books. It would be so neat and tidy if I could stop there because no further explanation of the organization of artists' books in libraries was necessary. However, as mentioned in my previous post, artists' books are not only housed with other artists' books. In fact, they might be found collocated with poetry, children's literature, photography, folk tales, history, or any number of other subject areas. Finding them, for me anyway, has been one lovely treasure hunt, especially in a year when we all needed a little more joy in our days.

When I do have a lucky find in the library's circulating collections, I almost immediately launch into an ongoing internal debate about whether or not those books should be transferred to Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) or if they should stay right where they are. If my goal is to promote the preservation and access of artists' books, then moving the books to SCUA should facilitate their long-term preservation as the storage conditions are more closely monitored and the books would be secured. Therein lies the cause of my debate - the impact on access for students and researchers. If the artists' books are in the circulating collections, there is somewhat more opportunity to serendipitously find them. Likewise, ready access to the books allows students and researchers to pull the books they are interested in without the need to work with a librarian. One could argue though that ensuring the safe storage of the books is also ensuring that they can be accessed long-term. Books in SCUA can more easily be monitored and cared for, and researchers can request to see them at anytime during SCUA's open hours. Also, the artists' books in SCUA are likely to be shared with students regularly and purposefully rather than sitting on a shelf waiting to be discovered. If the date due stamps are any indication (and they are not always the most accurate measure of use), many of the books have been sitting on a shelf for a very long time. By moving them to SCUA, they will regularly be used with classes and in exhibitions.

A listing online for the same edition held by UNCG
Another interesting aspect of the books I discovered in the circulating collections is that some of them are now quite valuable. For example, we had a copy of Ed Ruscha's Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964 that was housed in the circulating collections. The book mostly consists of a series of photographs of fires followed by one last image of milk. At the time of its first printing, it likely sold for just a few dollars. Now, copies of that book online range in price from about $600 to $7500 depending on the edition, condition, and whether it is signed by the artist. Even if our copy fell at the bottom of that range, it represents one of several books of Ruscha's that I found in the circulating collections. Determining the value of a book is not in my wheelhouse of expertise, but I believe I can confidently surmise that our copy is now worth much more than the $2-3 it sold for in the 1960s or 1970s.

That said, our copy does have one factor that may decrease its value financially (it is arguably still valuable in terms of its research potential or aesthetic properties). Our copy was in a library binding. UNCG obtained our copy of the book in 1970 and at that time, and sometimes still, it was considered best practice to put a small paperback book in a sturdier cover so that it will last through all the handling and use it may endure over the years. In this case, the library binding consisted of one side of a double-stitched binder's tape being adhered to the spine of the book and new paper endsheets, and the other side was attached to a custom-fitted cover made of book board and a strip of bookbinding cloth.

Library bindings like this one were, and sometimes still are, considered a
best practice for preserving the life of the book for the long-term

Author Gay Walker noted in her 1982 article about library binding, "The growth of the reading public in the early and mid-nineteenth century placed tremendous pressures on the book industry. This push for increased output forced changes in both paper manufacturing and binding methods... [paperbacks] have fallen apart from wear and tear and the failure of poor materials used in the original binding." So, a book like Various Small Fires was never built to endure the type of use it may encounter in a busy research library. "Library binding may be viewed as a conservation measure if the life of the book is extended through such protection and the option to rebind in the future is maintained." (Walker, 1982) In fact, our copy is in as good of condition as it is because of the forethought of the bindery employee who put it in a library binding.

Left: Paper endsheet attached to front cover of a paperback
Right: Adding moisture to soften the adhesive to remove the endsheet
Since the book would now be transferred to SCUA and likely to be used with classes or in exhibitions, I needed to consider whether to leave it in the library binding or to attempt to restore it to as close to its original condition as possible. On one had, it would create a more authentic experience for the reader if the book looked like it did originally. On the other hand, it likely was not going to be possible to get it out of the library binding completely unscathed. Walker warned thirty years ago, "Valuable books should be handled separately from those in the normal commercial binding routines, particularly if special options are not available from the binder." However, remember that this book did not necessarily fall into the category of "valuable books" when it was first obtained, so providing a library binding that would be reversible (a basic tenet of any conservation treatment) was not really a mandate.

Left: Using a metal spatula to gently remove the remaining adhesive
Right: A view of the spine released from the double-stitched binder's tape
If we were fortunate to have two copies of the book, one could remain in pristine condition and the other, perhaps in a library binding, could be a handling copy for students and researchers. Because we only have the one copy, I had to decide whether it made sense to attempt to remove it from the library binding, though I still have mixed feelings about whether or not that is the best course of action in similar situations in the future. My strong inclination was to attempt to restore it to as close to its original condition as possible, so I did ultimately remove it from the library binding along with several other artists' books that were in library bindings. Photographs of that process are included in this post.

If you would like to continue to follow along with my journey of discovering the artists' books at UNCG, please subscribe to this blog for updates.

Various Small Fires and Milk was removed from the library binding.
It later received a thin, matching mending tissue over the spine area


Walker, G. (1982). Library Binding as a Conservation Measure. Collection Management, 4(1-2), 55–72. https://doi.org/10.1300/j105v04n01_04 


Where are the Artists' Books?

Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections & University Archives (SCUA) began collecting artists' books in earnest during the 1970s. Within the collection, which falls under SCUA's larger Book Arts Collection, are a rich variety of items by various book artists. The collection includes many different book structures and the content spans many different topics. While the Artists' Books Collection is a category in and of itself, the larger Book Arts Collection includes a variety of materials, such as fine bindings, books about the history or making of books, exhibition catalogs, and livres d'artistes.

Charles M. Adams, former UNCG Library Director

Charles M. Adams, the Library Director from 1940s-1960s, was known as a "book man". Along with many other books, he bought private press and artists' books for the Rare Books collection. When SCUA formed in the 1970s, Emmy Mills, Special Collections Librarian at the time, conducted a survey of the holdings and realized that there was a collecting focus of Book Arts, so she led the way for continuing to build and develop the collection. Rare Books Specialist, Carolyn Shankle, took the collecting baton after Mills retired and she has continued to expand SCUA's holdings of artists' books and book arts related materials.

Using a broad definition of artist books', SCUA holds works by the Kelmscott Press (late 19th century) to those published by Eragny at the turn of the 20th century to Vollard in the 1930s to the graphic works by Ward & others in the 1930s-1950s, to Black Mountain College and Jargon Society in the 1950s and onwards.

Women book artists are featured in the collection, as are artists' books based on women's writings and the domestic sphere as those relate to holdings in our Woman's Collection of rare books. Likewise, since SCUA has a collection of juvenile works, there are artists' books focused on fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, and alphabet books among other topics. SCUA continues to expand the Book Arts and Artists' Books collections and holds artists' books of the late 20th century along with the work of contemporary book artists, such as Julie Chen and Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr.

In 2020, inspired by the many treasures in SCUA's collections and my background as a book artist, I embarked on a journey to more fully discover the Artists' Books Collection (ABC) at UNCG. Due to the wide range of subject areas covered by the ABC and by artists's books in general, the books are not always housed together in one location nor is there a handy guide to which books or book artists are represented in the collection. Some are stored with books about folktales, some with poetry books, others are in the oversized books, and yet others may be among history titles or juvenile fiction. Aside from the diverse collection of artists' books stored in various locations within SCUA, a number of artists' books were (and some still are) located in Jackson Library's general circulating collections rather than among the rare books in SCUA.

Carolyn Shankle, Rare Books Specialist,
sharing early printing history books with a class

Somewhat selfishly, and of course to benefit our library's researchers and patrons, I wanted to create an inventory of the collection of artists' books. Though I expected this to be a somewhat time-consuming endeavor, I encountered a number of other challenges as I began to create a collection inventory. Perhaps the largest obstacle to beginning was getting to the bottom of what is or is not an artists' book. The history and criticism of artists' books are still very much developing and being written, and the definition of an artist's book seems quite slippery in the literature. Authors have written about artists' books for decades, but some authors take a broad view of artists' books while others argue that no matter how beautifully crafted or creative an exhibition catalog or book of poetry might be, they are still distinct categories and cannot be called artists' books. 

As I began to develop an initial inventory of artists' books, I regularly came across "potential" artists' books in the library's circulating collections. Among my finds were some of Ed Ruscha's photo books, often referred to as some of the earliest artists' books, and a beautifully crafted exhibition catalog entitled La Cédille qui sourit by George Brecht and Robert Filliou. However, despite twenty years of experience with artists' books and an MFA in Book Arts, I lacked confidence at first about making decisions about not just what is or isn't an artist's book but also which books were of enough value (artistically and monetarily) that they really should be transferred to SCUA.

One of the silver linings of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic was a deluge of free webinars and artists' talks available regularly. One such treat was a talk presented by Tony White, at the time from The Metropolitan Museum's Watson Library who also teaches a history of artists' books course at Rare Book School at UVA. After attending the presentation, I reached out to White to ask a few of my most pressing questions about artists' books. He graciously suggested that we meet virtually to talk through some of my questions. I am grateful for what turned out to be several conversations that increased my confidence about defining what is or isn't an artist's book. As with many scholars and collectors of artists' books, White was clear to state his opinion but readily admitted that other scholars or collectors may disagree with his determinations. Though I can't say that I finished our conversations with either a tight definition or an elevator speech about artists' books, I felt much more equipped in the area of how to think about what may or may not be an artist's book. In other words, I felt more confident in beginning to make those calls for myself as I started the collection inventory in earnest.

If you are interested in following along on my journey of Discovering the Artists' Books Collection at UNCG, please subscribe to this blog by entering your email at the link at the top of the column on the right. 


Land acknowledgement: UNCG University Libraries is located on the land that has long served as the site of meeting and exchange amongst a number of Indigenous peoples, specifically the Keyauwee and Saura. We honor and respect the diverse Indigenous peoples connected to this territory on which we gather.