BLUEPRINT: Collecting artists’ books?

by Tony White

Collecting  artists’ books for an academic research library is a straight forward proposition: follow the library’s collection development policy for artists’ books and apply knowledge expertise as appropriate, or seek counsel from colleagues when the limits of personal expertise are attained. Nearly all academic libraries have artists‘ books collections in place when you start a new job as an art librarian in an academic library there is nearly always an artists’ books collection and you simply take over building and managing the collection. 

However, in an art museum library, you will have a collection development policy for the art museum library just as with an academic library. For many museum curators having the art library acquire and preserve books makes sense in that this is what libraries do best: acquire, catalog, preserve and make print publications available to all library visitors. Yet some curatorial staff may view an artist book as an specimen like any other artwork in the museum, and therefore something that should be held in and interpreted only by a curator. Both approaches or models co-exist. Artists’ books are unique in that they are collected by art museum libraries and curatorial departments: as a research publications and materials for scholarship and learning, and as specimens. The art museum library’s understanding that artists’ books are a part of the rich history of publishing and publications by and for artists and art historians is well documented in that context. The library acquires and makes available published materials in print and electronic form, images, archives, and ephemera, in support of the study and interpretation of art and cultural artifacts. This creates tremendous opportunities for departmental collaborations, new workflows, policies, and procedures.

Research Challenges and Opportunities

In an academic library you don’t need to make a case for why artist’s books are part of a research collection: it is understood that these artists’ publications support teaching and learning, scholarship and research. The artist book is a publication, a research source, a specimen, and an art work.

In academic libraries subject librarians must collect all appropriate publications to support research in all areas that faculty are teaching and researching in, and in addition they must collect in new areas that faculty are exploring. Depending on various criteria, collecting on a particular topic may be representative or comprehensive. Traditionally research libraries collect comprehensively in major areas of focus, and representatively in areas of less importance. In the past half century with the increased focus on publications by and about contemporary artists and their art practices, from photography to performances, art museum libraries have continued to acquire all relevant publications and publication formats in support of curatorial programming and research. One area that is new to some art museum libraries and curatorial departments alike are how best to provide researcher access to artists books, book objects, sculptural books, zines, and related publications. Similar publications in the 21st century include nearly any publication at the intersection of design, art, photography, architecture, and other cultural phenomena. Art libraries, with their established connections to in- and out-of-print dealers and distributors, have a natural opportunity and obligation to sustain collections of contemporary publishing in all formats, from any publisher, established, independent, or self-published. Sustaining the scholarly record is critical in contemporary art. This is important for any research library, academic or museum.

Strategies for Collecting: How and where?

Just as with any book, these artists‘ books are subject to collecting and acquisition parameters like any other publication, with the primary exceptions in that artist’s books may not adhere to trade publication standards such as ISBNs, barcodes, dust jackets, or traditional formats, bindings, coverings, etc. Often, too, artists books are difficult to distribute and make available, and access to internet shops does not necessarily enhance the acquisition of these publications.

Firm ordering or purchasing is most common as these independent publications are often not sold through commercial distributors. Often they are available from independent booksellers like Printed Matter, Art Metropole, Bookie Woekie, Motto Books, etc., or from individual creators, or other small publishers and/or distributors. Taking time to visit as many bookshops that sell artists’ publications is important if you are involved in building collections of artists’ books. Quite often brick-and-mortar shops will have an online presence however not all of their stock will be listed online. This is especially true for ephemera or small exhibition catalogs, thin literature, that may be inexpensive. Another location for where firm ordering can take place are at the many photobook, artists’ books, artists’ publications, etc., are the book fairs on nearly every continent. The largest of these is the New York Art Book Fair. These fairs are great opportunities to meet the dealers, artists, publishers, vendors, everyone involved with the production and distribution and sale of these cool publications. 

Buying in the field when you represent an art library can be challenging. Not every vendor takes credit cards, and few are willing to send a copy of the book without receiving payment first. Here in the United States it is customary for a library to insist on receiving books first, then processing payment.  Large shops and distributors are used to this, but individual artists or small publishers generally are not if they are new to the scene. Also, when buying for an institution, if I pay cash or with a credit card to an individual artist, for example, then I need them to fill out a tax form, I create an invoice, and ask for an itemized receipt. Even in this case I ask the artist to ship the book to me. Then if the book is damaged in transit the institution can ask for a replacement.  However, if I buy a book and take it myself at the point of purchase, then I am responsible for the book if it gets damaged on the way back to the library. The best arrangement is purchasing the book online with a credit card. Then we don’t need the tax form, the payment generates an electronic payment invoice and receipt, and the book(s) are mailed directly to the library.

Rare book dealers are offering these titles for sale more frequently in the past five years, as these books are finally commanding rare book prices, especially for titles published in the latter half of the 20th century. Another, though less frequent form of acquisition, is through visits from artists themselves. Though this is very time consuming and there is considerable (implied) pressure from the artist to make a purchase. Most librarians prefer to work with dealers, or by asking an artist to email a link to a website, or send a paper prospectus. Then if a librarian is interested to see and hold the book they make ask it to be sent on approval. If the library decides to purchase the book, shipping charges from the artist can be added to the bill. However, if the library decides to not purchase the book, then the library pays for return shipping. 

Another great source for acquisitions is reviewing the exhibitor listings for any of the many international book fairs. For example the MISS READ fair and the New York Art Book Fair list exhibitors at the fair.  Almost all of the exhibitors include links to their websites. Taking time to visit all these websites — publishers, artist pages, and distributors — is an important use of time when building collections. Taking the time is valuable. This is especially significant since many publishers online will sell out of their titles quickly.

Another great source for collection building is acquisition of collections through gifts: donations of books, and sometimes, donations with a cash gift to help with processing, cataloging, preservation costs, etc. Many potential donors ask the library to purchase their books or archives, without fully realizing that libraries incur significant costs to accessions, catalog, preserve, and make collections available in an ongoing manner. That libraries must think about the storage costs for every volume or box they store, on or offsite, in perpetuity, often surprises people. Here in the United States the tax code is especially favorable for any book collector living here and wishing to make a gift. A collection is appraised by a qualified appraiser, then the donation is made. The donor can take the appraised value of the books as a tax deduction against their annual taxes. 

Economics challenges

One of the big challenges for creators and publishers of these unique and special publications are the economics of production and distribution are often higher than the amount gained through sale/purchase. Most artists and publishers of artists‘ books operate at a deficit. Very few artists/publishers have gained commercial success. There is very little money in artists‘ books. Still it is an attractive way for photographers, designers, and artists, to create new work and share it with a broad audience. Optimism and hope keep this form of creative and artistic publishing going.

Pricing for artist publications, book works, and artists’ books, have been kept artificially low for decades. This is tied to the misperception that artist´s books are democratic artworks — for a mass audience beyond the hegemony of the art gallery system — and that they should be priced as such. This notion was first promulgated in an essay in the exhibition catalog titled artists books edited by Diane Vanderlip at the Moore College of Art in 1973.  In 1976, with the founding of Printed Matter in New York City, Clive Philpot has been given credit for supporting the notion that artists’ books should be made in editions of at least 100 or more. This is the minimum publishing threshold for publishers interested in submitting their title(s) for consignment consideration at Printed Matter. As early as the 1960s Ed Ruscha was selling his little photo books for $2.00 or $2.25, then for $2.50. About $30.00 in today’s taking into inflation. However, several years ago in a conversation with A.A. Bronson, former executive director of Printed Matter, Bronson noted that hot selling titles at printed matter were in the ten dollar range and selling at one copy per week. Books in the $30.00 range rarely sold at Printed Matter. And now many of the books that have been sold at Printed Matter for the same artificially low price — many of these are publications from the 1970s and 1980s that were printed in editions of 500-1000 — for decades, the stock is finally running out and these books are starting to command rare book prices for out of print titles.


While preservation is not an intuitive element of collection building, it is worth commenting on, as it is an important consideration when purchasing artists‘ books. In the 1970s following the Vanderlip exhibition, artists began intentionally publishing artists’ books. While most artists began experimenting with various publication formats, a number of artists began making sculptural books, book objects, and altering books. Any collection development policy must address whether or not a library has the capacity to collect such objects. First and foremost would such 3-D books support the research areas of the curatorial staff or faculty or core visitors. If yes, then does a library have proper storage areas for these often large and oversized objects. Do they have access to preservation staff who can make protective enclosures for storage and handling? Can the library preserve and make these materials accessible for the long term? Most libraries collect such books very selectively, or only when they come in as part of a larger donation. But for published books that are more in the form or shape of a codex or monograph, storage and access is simplified. Most libraries will work with their preservation or conservation department to have enclosures — wrappers, envelopes, folders, boxes in various forms — made to protect the book. But artists’ books don’t generally conform to publishing standards. They may have loose elements, non-standard wrapping materials, bags, photographs, non-standard content or pages, toxic materials, food, and basically every imaginable material. Containing, preserving, and making them available for viewing, is often a challenge. And where possible, and within the parameters of collection development policies, the non-standard qualities of artists‘ books are a positive characteristic.

Exhibition or display

In the academic library context, librarians curate exhibitions, write catalog essays for print and online publications, and in the art museum art library context librarians are constrained from creating exhibitions of books from the library. Librarians may display books, but may not curate or exhibit books. Books that they have collected and acquired. For many librarians they must have acute subject knowledge as part of their job duties to acquire collections in support of research by curatorial staff, and other researchers. Librarians are collecting materials retrospectively, presently and in looking forward to new trends. So librarians who are constrained in their local institution, they must seek opportunities outside of their institution for scholarship, exhibition curation, and the like.

Opportunities and challenges exist for both academic art and art museum research librarians. Developing collections guided by collection development policies and in support of local institutional researchers‘ current and future needs remains paramount. And maintaining dialogue with all collection teams, libraries, researchers, curators, all partners in research, will continue to further the critical dialogue related to contemporary publications by artists, designers, photographers, and anyone else interested in these amazing and cool publications.


Contribution to the Panel: BLUEPRINT: Collecting artists’ books? at MISS READ The Berlin Art Book Fair, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, June 12, 2016.