Artists’ Books Collection Development Policy

Statement of purpose of the institution and/or collection 

Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) collects artists’ books by regional artists, or that feature the geography, socio-political life, material culture or history of New Jersey.i

Our artists’ book collection overlaps a larger collection of books and other materials that exemplify and document the book arts in New Jersey, including, for example, typography, wood-engraving, calligraphy, and book-binding. This collection reflects a broad interest in the history of the book throughout our rare book collections, which carries forward from the earliest years of the university. 

For more information on our rare book collections, see our Rare Books and Book Arts Collection Strengths 

Types of Programs Supported by the Collection 

The artists’ book collection contributes to a range of university programs. In the New Brunswick Libraries, it supports the annual New Jersey Book Arts Symposium and Exhibition, as well as the exhibitions program in SCUA. All kinds of SCUA exhibitions draw on the collection, in addition to regular exhibitions specifically about artists’ books. Over the last several years, artists’ books have appeared in From Cooking Pot to Melting Pot: New Jersey’s Diverse Foodways” (2018-19), @Rutgers_SCUA: Social Media and Archives (2018), and ’Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken!’ New Jersey in the Great War (2017). Artists’ books are also included from time to time in exhibitions mounted at the Art Library. 

The collection strongly supports teaching in both graduate and undergraduate classes as primary objects of study in the book-making classes offered at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, and in Art Librarianship offered at the School of Communication and Information (SCI). However it also serves instruction in other classes in the humanities, sciences and social sciences. Artists’ books uniquely foreground the book object and stimulate discussions of how materiality and reading practices condition readers’ expectations and the interpretation and valorization of texts. Items in the collection also frequently support workshops accompanying Seminars in the History of the Book—an ongoing program based in Rutgers-New Brunswick involving an independent group of scholars devoted to research concerning the history of the book—and in history of the book classes taught in the English department and in SCI.

The collection additionally serves outreach initiatives beyond the curriculum that engage public groups. Since artists’ books will frequently focus on hearing, touch, and even smell, they have been invaluable in presentations before The Joseph Kohn Training Center, a training center for visually impaired people in New Brunswick. As objects on display on the first floor of the Archibald Alexander library, and in a specially designed Plexiglas case by the elevator, artists’ books have deepened how library visitors think about books, libraries, and learning. 

Priorities and limitations of the collection 

The primary strength of the collection are artists’ books by New Jersey artists and book artists, in central and northern New Jersey. Through acquisition, the collection has attempted to be both broad and deep, documenting the history of the artists’ book making activities across the state, while concentrating on some New Jersey artists whose body of work has been influential, or highly representative of a significant genre or movement within the field or a period of activity. 

Parameters of the Collection  

Our collection has a decided interest in preserving the historical integrity of the artists’ book movement. Viewed chronologically, the collection follows the artists’ book movement from the earliest “inexpensively produced, widely distributed, accessible and disposable” productions of the conceptual artists during the 1960s up to the present. ii  

Happily, the earliest revolutionary stirrings involved the Fluxus group, which at the time, included instructors in the Rutgers Art Department, and examples of these works are found in the collection. We continue today to add contemporary works that reflect the highly experimental, multi-media work of Jersey book artists. 

It has been a somewhat lower priority to add examples of what are sometimes somewhat casually identified as artists’ books—books created before the term was coined and the reorientation of the book as a viable artistic medium occurred—according to the broad definition of artists’ books as “books created by artists.”iii For us it is necessary that a self-aware book artist intended to create something that belonged to the conceptual category of artists’ books, in order for the collection to preserve the historical trace.iv However we will add examples of these related works (e.g. concrete poetry, published calligrams), to the collection when we can obtain them through donation, for they help to illuminate the pre-history of artists’ books, instruct us in parallel histories of other kinds of aesthetically self-consciously fabricated books, vividly instruct us about important nuances in the broad history of the book, stimulate class discussion when placed in dialogue with other kinds of books and artists’ books, and provoke the broader community to think creatively about the evolution of the library and the educational mission of the university. In our rare collections we have examples of Russian Futurist texts, lives de’ artistes, and many kinds of private printing, as well as examples of beautifully illustrated and illuminated books and manuscripts created as early as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In other words, we have tried to organize the artists’ book collection around the artists’ book movement, while positioning it adjacent to a larger field of study sometimes called book arts or the art of the book, and the history of the book. 

While our focus is regional, we have accepted as donations artists’ books without direct relevance to New Jersey, when these support areas of ongoing research and teaching, contextualize our primary collecting strengths, or possess singular value as works of book art or craft. However, we discourage donations of artists’ books lacking these values. 

Through a purchase award, we will attempt from time to time to capture student work produced by exemplary students in the Mason Gross School of the Arts bookmaking course. 

Restrictions on the Collection 

The considerable growth in the number of artists’ books being created over the last several decades has far outstripped our ability to collect comprehensively, and forced upon us strategies to satisfy the purpose of the collection. For example: small informal artisanal groups making artists’ books have sprung up throughout the state. While these groups form a rich chapter in the narrative of artists’ books in New Jersey, we do not have the wherewithal to discover and document their existence or acquire a full spectrum of their work. We have added to the collection only those individual pieces that merit acquisition on their own terms (by showcasing innovative technique, typifying an emerging direction in the field, or engaging with subject value of importance to our students and faculty). We have solicited and continue to solicit targeted donations to supplement our holdings, and continue to work toward a future in which collecting strategies will overcome present obstacles. 

Although we endeavor to represent artists’ books by significant or influential book artists, either through acquisition or donation, we have not sought to collect a full catalog of any single book artist. For similar reasons, we have shied away from seeking artists’ books by prominent artists made expressly to appeal to the art market and typically commanding prices in excess of our current yearly acquisitions budget, even when those artists have created their books at Rutgers (for example, Kiki Smith, William Kentridge, and Richard Tuttle). We would welcome donations of their work, of course.

The collection has been nonrestrictive in terms of form or materials, including works in all shapes and sizes, composed of glass, wood, plastic, cardboard, metal, wax, rubber, ceramic clay, as well as animal skin and paper. Privileging innovation and experimentation, we are more inclined to acquire works that shine a light on cultural preconceptions about the materiality and function of the book, or artists’ books that demonstrate an interesting degree of self-consciousness both about what a book is and what a book does. The dominant book structure in our collection is the codex book, which simply reflects the historical fact that, to date, the artists’ book movement has principally located itself within the familiar horizons of the traditional book. However, we do acquire sculptural artists’ books, sometimes referred to as book works or book objects, through donation, to the extent that conservation, storage, and access needs allow. In acquiring these liminal works that occupy an indeterminate zone between art and book, we have been guided by authorial intent as well as consensus. We regard objects designated as artists’ books by the artist, by galleries, book-dealers, curators, scholars and other artists as contributing to the value of the programs and departments our collections serve. Unconventional works that defy traditional expectations about how books should look may be surprising to the general public, and, indeed, that is often part of their intent, but they represent the rich historical discourse within the field, provide pedagogically useful aids for spurring student exploration of the materiality of information, and advocate for diversity and difference. 

While it is theoretically possible that certain artists’ books might be rejected out of hand, for example, a work that promotes offensive or hurtful behaviors, or one made from toxic or repellant materials, actual collecting experience has not led us to establish categories of material, subject matter, structure or process, we would preemptively exclude from our collection. While collecting decisions are made by the curator of the collection, they are made in a collegial and collaborative context. 

Modes of acquisition 

We acquire most of our artists’ books directly from artists, through purchase and donation; we supplement these acquisitions with purchases made from the catalogs of book-dealers and galleries, by donations from various other sources, and by transfer from other collections within the New Brunswick libraries. 

Resource sharing policy 

Like all materials in Special Collections and University Archives, items in the artists’ book collection can be accessed outside of Rutgers through several cooperative access arrangements, including the OCLC Research Library Partnership SHARES Consortium. However, titles that are very fragile or irreplaceable (including one-of-a-kind objects) are not shared without the curator’s approval. The curator of the artists’ book collection will consider requests to photocopy, or scan materials needed by other institutions subject to several criteria: condition of materials, limitations (if any) imposed by the terms of acquisition, and the photoduplication policy of SCUA. 

Deaccessioning policy 

Items in the Artists’ Book Collection are not deaccessioned. However, artists’ books that might be included within a larger donation but do not fit our collecting criteria may be rejected and disposed of as described in our deed of gift. It is our hope that we could provide a suitable home for an artists’ book given into our possession but inappropriate for our collection. 

For information on deaccessioning rare books see the Collection Policy for Special Collections and University Archives (https://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/library_policies/collection-policy-special-collections-and-university-archives.)

Procedures for reviewing the policy and its implementation

This policy will be reviewed, evaluated, and changed as necessary to meet the goals of the university and the New Brunswick Libraries 

(2019)