With colleagues from the Marriott Library User Experience and Web Development team, graduate student Jonathan Sandberg and I are building a public-facing website that seeks to educate the broader public and facilitate the use of a common vocabulary by scholars, makers, and community users of artists’ books. The website, database, visual exemplars, and index will aid in the discoverability of artists’ books from entry-level (What is a codex?) to advanced level (What artists’ books have employed wire-edge bindings?). The site will provide information on artists’ books, directives for using the index to ascertain the appropriate vocabulary for further research, and invite the public to submit commonly used terms that will enhance discoverability. The searchable index will seek to continue the work of the Artists Book Thesaurus (ABT), but with a wider audience.
At the turn of the century, when library catalogs were migrating to online formats and it was the beginning of the end of browsing collections, I was a new book arts educator and started to think about the issue of discovery. Our rare book curators were super helpful and developed insightful annotated bibliographies, and I was reading available criticism, looking at early websites, and lurking on the BKARTS listserv to discover book artists. As student numbers increased and the number of artists’ books being produced continued to burgeon, my ability to recall particulars of specific works waned. I found that contemporary students, who are arguably less proficient at research than students of the pre-web era, needed a way to break the boundary of the special collections vault.
As part of his graduate fellowship, Jonathan and I had been gathering data on artists’ books in the rare books collections to support Rare Book Cataloguer Allie McCormick’s development of more robust MARC records. When I saw the spring 2020 DM grant announced, I saw an opportunity for this project to take a new route and result in additional output.
It’s been exceedingly satisfying to pursue this research after years of consideration. As we build the website, I see additional potential for subject-related discovery. Subject-specific research is notoriously difficult with artists’ books as there is an infinite variety of artists’ books that fall into the miscellany of N7433.3. Artists’ Books are rich with diversified content and are potential resources with a multiplicity of access points for a broad range of users.
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Since 2005, scholars—notably Richard Minsky, Lynne S. Vieth, Daniel Starr, R. Arvid Nelson, Johanna Drucker, and Jerome McGann—have advocated for “digital platforms that will deepen and expand the scholarly study of print documents by exposing hitherto invisible levels of artifactual signification” (Vieth, 18). From 2012-2016, a group of cataloguers involved with the Art Libraries Society of North America worked on the web interface Artists Book Thesaurus (ABT) to support cataloging of artists’ books but found that the volunteer group could not sustain the site. This project seeks to extend these efforts to a broader audience.
The two Digital Matters grants allowed this extensive project to get a jump start by funding the infrastructure for the website through the Marriott Library’s User Experience and Web Development team. These grants also provided funds for Jonathan Sandberg to act as research assistant. These two grants were a springboard for a joint application to the NEH to fund improved access to artists’ and illustrated books through public education and improved metadata.
Originally, we had thought that we’d be able to complete the form/genre terms within the first eighteen months and then move on to addition work with subject headers. As we continued to delve deeper and began to work with the University of Iowa, the need for additional terms became clear. We look forward to presenting at DHU6 at the end of February and at other venues in the future to encourage use of the site and further collaboration with other institutions.
As we build the website, I see additional potential for subject-related discovery. Subject-specific research is notoriously difficult with artists’ books as there is an infinite variety of artists’ books that fall into the miscellany of N7433.3. Artists’ Books are rich with diversified content and are potential resources with a multiplicity of access points for a broad range of users.
–Marnie Powers-Torrey, Fall 2020 DM Faculty Grantee