Observation: The Center for Book Arts

By Carissa

This observation was undertaken in three parts: a visit to the working studio and gallery space, a meeting with their Collections Manager, Theo Roth, and an exploration of their online catalogue.

One characteristic that separates the Center for Book Arts’ archival collections from many other collections that house similar artifacts is that, put bluntly, its collections are not its primary focus. Ever since opening in 1974, it has been first and foremost a not-for-profit working studio and gallery space for artists. Within this context, though, issues of curation and preservation are still addressed regularly in multiple forms of media.

Working studio spaces are full of artifacts. At the Center for Book Arts, the actual tools of production are preserved through use: wooden and metal type and furniture, quoins and roller gauges, composing sticks, sewing frames, and of course the hefty printing and bookbinding presses themselves. (A recent class on Vandercook letterpress proof press maintenance drew students from all over the world, according to Roth. These types of presses are no longer manufactured, so preservation of the machinery and preservation of the artistic practice are intertwined.)

From some of these tools come not only the prints and books which will later be displayed, sold, or otherwise enjoy some kind of function legitimizing them as a work of artistic production, but also the prints that will not. There are prints made just for the sake of teaching students to take care of their tools, for instance. (On each Vandercook press that’s not in use is a black sheet of paper printed with tall wood type letters in white: LEAVE THE PRESS DISENGAGED AND IN TRIP WHEN FINISHED.) And then there are the proofs–on newsprint or on fine paper. Some will end up in the trash; others will be evaluated later. Maybe a mysterious inked thumbprint will surface and destroy that particular print’s dream of getting a signature and edition number. But while on the drying rack, all prints are equal. Nothing is precious. Or everything is.

In the gallery spaces are finished works–not necessarily featuring items that were printed there, but rather curated shows featuring artwork by visiting artists, artwork on loan from other collections, and featured items from the Center for Book Arts’ permanent collection. Works from the exhibitions also frequently end up in the permanent collection, Roth noted. The works on display run the gamut in terms of their affordances for audience participation, their degree of aspiring to “high art,” and their use of traditional and new media.

On the first day that I visited, the Center for Book Arts was hosting a reception and talk by the artist China Marks, whose books and textile-based “drawings” are formed using an industrial zig-zag sewing machine and scraps of fabric to create complex layered images with an aesthetic immediacy more analogous to drawings and collages than to embroidery and quilting. Her drawings sag from the wall with the weight of their fabric; her books are displayed laying flat and open on shelves protruding from the wall, with white gloves beside them. She welcomes anyone to visit her studio in Long Island. Her books represent many, many hours of solitary and precise work, and must be handled with care for the sake of preserving the one-of-a-kind object, but they are created to be experienced.

Along another wall, the space is currently home to an exhibition of work by master printmaker Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., who at the age of 40 left his job as a programmer for AT&T to pursue traditional letterpress printmaking. Recently, he taught a master class at the Center for Book Arts, and the name of the class says a lot about his views on art: “Put the Message in the Hands of the People and Move On.” He earned his MFA and taught graphic design along the way, but his journey out of the world of programming led him to a decidedly unpretentious and populist way of looking at his artistic process. He prefers to print on chipboard, to embrace flaws that could be considered “bad printing,” and to sell his prints for $15 or give them out for free rather than to limit their audience to gallery- or museum-goers. (Prints are stacked near the wall next to a sign that reads “Please take one.”) Although Kennedy has disavowed the computer technologies from which he once earned a living, the affordance of printmaking technology to create multiples enables the same preservation tactic that digitization does: preservation through proliferation.

For one portion of the exhibition of Kennedy’s work, an entire wall is covered in 6”x8” or so prints. “I AM nEGRO!” is printed in large, mixed typefaces across most of them, followed by repeating and differing phrases. Layering enables infinite recombinations of fixed texts and images, and recalls digital technology in that way, too–with all the preservation issues it entails. Is it possible to preserve each version? The one I brought home reads, “I AM nEGRO!/I am human.” but others that lined the wall included the following: “I AM nEGRO!/I am stopped.” “I AM nEGRO!/I am Mother.” “I AM nEGRO!/I am enslaved.” “I AM nEGRO!/I am trans.” “I AM nEGRO!/I am ETERNITY!” “I AM nEGRO!/I am shot.”“I AM nEGRO!/I AM!” and on, and on. The recombinations are not truly infinite, as they could be on a web page, for instance, but they pose a difficulty nonetheless. Roth suggested that the best solution for archiving these might be to photograph the installation, as well as each combination of type on those cards, and to save just a representative sample of the prints. This would perhaps allow the rest of the prints to fulfill their creator-given destiny of circulation among the people–and for us to move on. Kennedy might be skeptical of the computer-generated image (with just cause), but digitization in this case gives life to the non-digital, and allows for the artist’s needs to be met while also preserving the piece for posterity.

Finally, another show currently on display, “Enacting the Text: Performing with Words,” focuses on performative art practice–particularly in the ways those practices manifest themselves beyond the performative aspect through textual artifacts in the form of not only prints and books but also videos and scripts, letters, and notes. “Please take a moment to fill out this questionnaire,” reads a sign on one wall. The questionnaire asks about unexplained experiences, flow state feelings, visions, and dreams.

“We create a lot of ephemera,” Roth noted when we met. This ranges from administrative paperwork to exhibition documentation and flyers; from advertising for classes to artist member information. Some of it, too–namely the latter–has been superseded by the digital. Old archival boxes are still filled with slides and resumes from past artist members, but now, the Center for Book Arts website simply lists them by name and links to their websites. The burden of preservation has shifted onto the members themselves to ensure their artistic output is linked to the CBA both literally and figuratively; these hyperlinks will be useful for as long as the URLs and websites are maintained. Meanwhile, the Collections Manager can focus on other tasks–and there are certainly enough to stay busy! Roth’s day-to-day, he noted, involves lots of backlog processing. His workspace is not exactly cluttered, but certainly crowded. I’m honestly not sure I was able to see the original color of the desk below the stacks of books and papers awaiting him.

Well, after all, storage is always an issue in the archival profession. But here, records compete not only with each other for space, but also with studio materials. Besides ephemera about the Center’s exhibitions, programming, and administration, there are two main collections, housed in separate areas: the Reference Collection materials are in the office area, on corner shelving that is, if not easily accessible, at least easy for students, members, and instructors to find. Meanwhile, flat files and mobile high density shelving units with spoke-like handles help keep the Fine Art Collection as safe and condensed as possible in a more hidden and even more closely-packed part of the Center. On the mobile shelving, each book, broadside, or object is contained within an archival box, and sometimes within folders inside of those. The boxes range widely in size, and so the organization of the collection is exceptionally Tetris-like, primarily driven by what will fit where within very specific parameters.

The variety of the collection affects its cataloging, too, and requires equally flexible procedures. The Center for Book Arts’ collections database uses Dublin Core as a cataloging and metadata standard. In Dublin Core, all fields are optional and repeatable as needed, which helps make it a little less frustrating to be faced with items that don’t fit the mold: items that don’t have a title, for instance, or even “content” in the textual or illustrative sense. It also enables adding a huge amount of collaborators–which Roth described as one of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of cataloging a book arts collection. Consider the example of poetry chapbooks produced by multiple poets, illustrators, typesetters, printers, binders and a creative director.

The Center for Book Arts brings all this together using CollectiveAccess, described on their collection website as “an open source, configurable cataloguing tool and web-based application.” It is important that this application is available for use free of charge: because the archival collections are not the Center’s main focus, financial resources are more likely to be allocated elsewhere. Drawbacks include the relatively low level of customer support that is available, noted Roth, as well as the inability to export. For local use, however, CollectiveAccess works well. For instance, Roth uses CollectiveAccess to add individual and organization records when authority files for them do not exist–as is the case for many of the students and artist members working there who contribute to the works in the collection.

As far as other terminology goes, the controlled vocabularies for cataloging the collections come from the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) as well as from Library of Congress Subject Headings. Roth, a Pratt Institute School of Information alumnus himself, has a background in archival work, not in printmaking and books arts, so he also relies on the many artists working at the Center to provide deeper knowledge of the processes and materials than can be gleaned easily by someone who is not as steeped in these processes. (Roth does have plans to take some of the classes offered at the Center; ”Paper Repair” is an upcoming one that has piqued his interest.)

The primary use for the collections is to provide material for shows, fairs, outreach events, promotional use, and classes. “We don’t see many researchers,” Roth explained, but instructors use both the Reference Collection and the Fine Art Collection to show classes, and the exhibit spaces frequently display works from the Fine Art Collection. During the week, materials are only available when Roth is working. When possible, the Center collects two copies of an object in order to balance access and preservation; only the first copy circulates when requested.

In 2007, a window opened to go further with providing access to these items. Nowadays, a great amount of material from all the Center’s collections can be seen online at the following link: http://www.centerforbookarts.dreamhosters.com/index.php

Thanks to financial support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and many others, the Center for Book Arts has been working since 2007 to create a fully comprehensive catalog of their Fine Art, Reference, and Archive Collections. Already, the online database that was created through this initiative provides an excellent tool: it is fully searchable and can be filtered by person, organization, subject, place, or object type (which includes subcategories such as “coptic bindings,” “flip books,” “movable books,” and “mail art”). Searchability is key. Because much of the collection consists of works that are atypical in some way, the description field is often the best way to provide information about an object that may not be easy to provide in other fields, even when working with Dublin Core. Another useful feature of the online database, when it is included, is the “related objects” field, which links online users to other materials that have some similarities to the one being viewed.

Due to limited resources–particularly, it seems, in terms of sheer manpower–the Center for Book Arts has not yet quite realized its dream of a fully comprehensive digital version of the collection. Roth emphasized the continual need for volunteers.  As I wrote above, his daily work involves catching up to the backlog of items still waiting to be catalogued, photographed, and added here. But the dream exists, and it is slowly but surely emerging! The digital catalog provides a wonderful resource that I am certain will continue not only to preserve the history of book arts, but also to cultivate continuing exploration and innovation in the field.

Resources and Further Reading

The Center for Book Arts. http://centerforbookarts.org/

China Marks. http://www.chinamarks.net/

Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. http://www.kennedyprints.com/ and http://www.proceedandbebold.com/

CollectiveAccess. http://www.collectiveaccess.org/

The Center for Book Arts Online Collections Catalogue. http://www.centerforbookarts.dreamhosters.com/index.php

The Center for Book Arts Internships and Volunteer Program. http://centerforbookarts.org/opportunities/internships-volunteer/

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