Insofar as artist books reside in libraries, they have been – until recently – more available to seek out through digital means than other types of artwork. Libraries were the first repositories to seize the potential of computer technology to catalogue and manage their collections, and by the 1980s both the underlying system and the user interface were administered typically via computer terminals. Many library catalogues were online long before the internet.

As electronic access widened, libraries benefited further from the standardisation of their documentation formats and their readiness to join union frameworks of freely available catalogues. Services like COPAC and employ different techniques to enable users to search numerous libraries collections with something in common (for example, research level of the collections, region or subject orientation). The international Worldcat combines its gargantuan size with some finesse in selecting, plus an ability to sort results according to their geographical proximity to the searcher.1

Library communities with a particular commitment to artist publications had long recognised that mainstream bibliographic cataloguing practices inadequately served the objects and those who searched for them. This concerned especially artist books in restricted-access special collections available only on request. Hence the provision of specialist documentation standards and practices that recommended the inclusion of more information than was usual for mainstream publications acquired as secondary resources. Thus, associated entities (illustrators, publishers, printers), genre (‘artist books’ as a designation) and physical format (for example, photobooks, moveable books) became standard data in catalogues.2 Similar information already existed for categories like manuscripts and historic printed books, where the materiality of the work was germane to its potential usefulness to a reader. The development of some controlled terminology (for example in the Art & Architecture Thesaurus,, in which libraries including the National Art Library participated) was a useful contribution to collocating types of artist books.

However, requests for access to artist books in library collections do not only come from academic researchers, for whose purposes bibliographic documentation is fairly well attuned, but from art students, artists and others seeking creative inspiration, ideas and examples, according to criteria that cannot necessarily be readily verbalised. What these readers really want to help them search for items of interest are images, which fifteen years ago meant illustrated hand lists or catalogues.3

Today it seems obvious that collections with artist books would add digital images of such items to their online catalogues. Current interface technology supports images perfectly well. Many library catalogues (and Worldcat) are now ‘illustrated’, just like Amazon, with images of book covers (plus other data), albeit generally derived from mainstream publishers, whose coverage of artists’ books is by nature limited.4 Further to the wide range of electronic resources that libraries have for decades provided by subscription to their patrons, they are now adding e-books, accessed via the catalogue.

Meanwhile the wider research environment has transformed. Not only have artists themselves embraced the internet as an arena for publicity and distribution, but major museums and galleries with extensive art collections have also invested heavily in their websites, publishing topical web essays or online exhibitions about their holdings, as well as entire inventories of them, with as many images as possible, often rights-cleared.5 While serving to advertise collections to visitors, these databases are also tremendous destinations in themselves. There is no suggestion here that a picture of an artwork is a substitute for the original but the discovery of the image, ideally with authoritative associated information, will fully satisfy many immediate needs: lecture slides, quick reference, citation, clip art etc. Furthermore, these websites, though not consorting with one another, tend to be easily discoverable on the open web, unlike (as yet) most library catalogue records.6

Nearly all libraries have passed through at least one phase of expensive digitisation – getting their old card and paper catalogues online. Now, however, a whole other level of access is called for, one that transforms the traditional function of discovery into the virtual delivery of the thing itself. The idea is familiar enough from various kinds of electronic resources provided in libraries already, but, in the case of artist books collections, the decisions, design, labour and technological challenges fall to the institutions themselves, and inevitably require further fundraising.

The practical challenges facing an organisation planning to provide enhanced digital access to artworks are many: the cost of photography or scanning, and applying metadata; clearing copyright; implementing a hosting platform and storage; designing an interface; ongoing technical support and development. 7

Special challenges for artist books (or indeed any books) include the relatively large number of images required for a representative or total view, and whether a special format is required to compile the images. These and other decisions will be partly determined by resources available and the strategic plan for and scope of the project, which might range from providing one or several reference images for each object, through to a selective presentation or online exhibition supported with catalogue entries and supplementary information, to full digitisation (including every page/view) of some or all of a collection. Behind that postmodern genre – the website – lie any number of half-conscious paradigms: the handout, the gallery guide, the monograph, the exhibition, the catalogue (of several types) – and the collection (not least in the sense that one is creating a new archive of digital artefacts that must be secured, preserved and festooned with metadata in their own right).

Given all of the above, it is no wonder that more has not been achieved to date, especially in the UK, by way of digitised artist books in libraries. However, there are a number of examples which, encouraging and useful in themselves, can illustrate the range of possibilities. These are listed below:

The Joan Flasch Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Illustrated catalogue of whole collection: 6,000+ books, with a single small image of each. Extensive indexing terms (and a fun animated interface that encourages initial browsing).

South African Artists’ Books

Focused anthology (c.827 works); several fairly small images for each book, adequate catalogue information; unfussy interface. Substantial background content.

Johanna Drucker’s Artists’ Books Online

An exemplary pilot for ‘an online repository of facsimiles, metadata, and criticism’, using open, extensible software and a sophisticated structure for cataloguing data grounded in current bibliographic theory; providing critical texts and downloadable high-resolution images of almost two hundred works of high quality by important artists, primarily associates of Drucker, mainly digitised in full.

The books of Erica Van Horn digitised in full by the Beinecke at Yale 

Online exhibition/artist catalogue; high quality images with good information; available to download in PDF format. Even so, the existence of a link in each record to request the actual item in the reading room acknowledges that a key purpose of surrogates is still to guide searchers to originals that match their requirement.

William Blake Archive

The original books by perhaps the original book artist, William Blake, are to most people effectively inaccessible, and we are used to experiencing them solely in reproduction and facsimile. Dating back to 1995, the William Blake Archive aims to reproduce all of every copy of every book Blake published himself, plus other works printed, designed, engraved or painted by him. Edited by eminent Blake scholars, it includes a good deal of supporting information and its model is more from literary studies: the variorum edition.

Elizabeth James
August 2012 

Elizabeth James is Senior Librarian, National Art Library Collections, Word & Image Department, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.