The Book Arts Collection at McCabe Library


by Anne Garrison

Swarthmore College is home to a vibrant and continually growing collection of modern and contemporary artists’ books. The Book Arts and Private Press Collection is committed to the acquisition of fine printing and artist books, and strives to represent all aspects of the physical book including bookbinding, typography, letterpress and offset printing, hand papermaking, illustration, and book design. Housed in the Rare Book Room in McCabe Library, this collection currently contains examples from nearly 1,000 different presses, from historically significant presses like Kelmscott Press, Doves Press, the Roycrofters, Nonesuch Press, and Golden Cockerel Press, to the works of important contemporary book artists such as Julie Chen, Charles Hobson, Maureen Cummins, Xu Bing, and Donald Glaister.

Begun in 1937 under the auspices of Charles Shaw, college librarian from 1927-1962, this collection originally encompassed examples of small private press books selected to demonstrate excellence in typography. Shaw, whose curatorial fingerprints are all over the collection, had a clear fondness for the fine press movement of the late-19th century and presses influenced by the Arts and Crafts tradition. As with many fine press collections in universities and colleges, the emphasis began to shift in the 1980’s from fine press to artists’ books. The collection grew substantially under Michael Durkin, college librarian, and subsequently, the excellent care of Amy Morrison, associate college librarian. In 2004, I took over curatorial duties.

The collection itself serves many purposes for the campus and the community. Because the collection contains material dating back to 1540, it provides students and visitors with a hands-on history of printing and the book in an intimate, concrete way. Artists can use the collection to find solutions to current technical problems. Professors can use the collection to illustrate concepts relevant to their curriculum, whether it is politics, gender issues, autobiography, history, or art. We regularly meet with book arts classes from Swarthmore, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Arts, and Rosemont College. But we also sometimes have the opportunity to tailor presentations for classes outside of traditional book arts courses. Students in a recent art history course on the visual culture of Japan had the chance to examine over a dozen artists’ books inspired by Japanese culture, including My Hands of Japan by Miriam Schaer, and Jack and Betty Forever by Veronika Shapers.

Another basic goal of the Book Arts Collection is to provide students with a broad range of choices for the definition of the book. Artists’ books continually challenge the definition of “book” and are sometimes delightfully difficult to describe. They can creatively and beautifully represent the book in its most comprehensive sense, incorporating structure, surface, image, and text. A book arts collection at its best can provide innumerable examples of what a book can be. In tandem with a focus on the history of the book is an emphasis on collecting works that reflect the ethos of Swarthmore’s culture. Swarthmore College has a very strong tradition of encouraging social justice and political activism, so we try to buy books that reflect those issues. One recent purchase we’re excited about is called 5 Year Plan, a beautiful silkscreen-printed onto hand-loomed khadi cloth book that examines the significance of the jhola bags in the Independence Movement in India. Thirty-two artists contributed artwork, poetry, personal narratives, and activist perspectives about the relevance of independence movements in the global situation. All profits from sales of 5 Year Plan are donated to Doctors Without Borders.

The library regularly exhibits material from the collection. Recent exhibits included 10 books honoring the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and 26 books celebrating the diversity of alphabet books. Next year we’ll be curating an exhibit on the Occupy Movement using the recently purchased Occuprint portfolio of silkscreen prints documenting the protests at Wall Street.

The collection, with over 6,000 items, is catalogued and available in Tripod, the library catalog. Anyone interested in seeing a specific work or in having a selection created on a particular topic, binding style, or technique is welcome to contact the library at Functioning as a kind of intimate hands-on laboratory for the book arts, the collection is an educational and inspirational tool that directly supports the arts, visual culture interests, and curricular interests.

(This article is adapted from an article which will appear in an upcoming issue of Central Booking Magazine: A Guide to the World of Book Arts, for Readers with Conviction.)

Comments are closed.