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Maria White, Patrick Perratt and Liz Lawes on behalf of ARLIS/UK & Ireland Cataloguing and Classification Committee, Artists' Books: A Cataloguers' Manual, ARLIS

The appearance of a cataloguing manual specifically addressing the artist’s book is evidence that this particular artform has reached, in several ways, a critical mass.

The artist’s book is now represented in significant quantities in libraries: it is safe to expect hundreds and even thousands of different titles in each of the special collections of certain universities, museums, public galleries, art schools and national libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland. There are hands-on art courses up and down the country which feature it in some way. The relatively high profile of some artists associated with the form, such as Fiona Banner and David Shrigley, and of galleries with a significant commitment to both modern art and the artist’s book, such as the Tate and the Baltic, has also contributed to the growing interest.

The approach of Bookworks and Morning Star / Pocketbooks, organisations that have made artists’ books that conform to mass paperback conventions while retaining significant artistic direction, has also been part of the recent trend. Successful bookfairs and the appearance of the Book Arts Newsletter, edited by Sarah Bodman at the Centre for Fine Print Research at UWE Bristol School of Art, has strengthened a developing buying, research, and general interest infrastructure.

Although the artist’s book is probably rarely taught in a historical, critical or theoretical context, these activities may mean that this is set to change and this would again fuel production. This manual is surely right to provide the cataloguer with some background to the form in its introduction. The influence of American and continental European artists is emphasised in the “Brief history” section but, curiously, the rather different British story is almost wholly absent. That story, while of course not being self-sealed against international influence, and vice versa, is arguably as fascinating. As importantly, though cataloguers should expect an international range to many collections, and American and European work has indeed been influential here, UK-based cataloguers are still likely to benefit from knowing the background and highlights of various British lines.

The purpose of the manual however is a practical one and it tackles the key issues head-on. The artist’s book has more than its fair share of problems, the artist often unconsciously (or, in fact, very consciously) teasing the reader in particularly bibliographically aware ways: very long titles, no titles; barely a text, barely a codex; made of iron, made of soap; a physical re-working and occupation of an already-published book; heat-sensitive paper, edible paper; edition of one, “unlimited” edition… the long list goes on. Wherever it is useful, this manual cites texts for further reading, gives examples throughout, and provides eighteen full catalogue record examples, many with an accompanying black and white photograph. It includes a bibliography that recognises the importance of exhibition catalogues and bookfair programmes in the documentation of the artist’s book (in the absence of the general critical and historic background noted above), and also has a list of online resources. The British Library’s large collection of artists’ books isn’t cited in the latter, but perhaps that is my institutional quibble.

The manual gives guidance on the problems of defining the form; on using supplementary information for descriptive and subject elements; and on the particular significance of the note field, for example for incorporating comments by the artist in respect to the work. It is a sound commentary on how to apply AACR appropriately and, occasionally, when it might be best to stretch the rules.

The authors rightly stress that the cataloguer should attempt to maintain a neutral stance, making sure that they do not over-interpret or pre-judge a work, and that any exterior statement is clearly indicated as such. There is even advice here on the moving possessive (artist’s book or artists’ book? – the answer is, it depends…).

Although the manual directs the cataloguer to reference works where technical definitions are given, it would have been useful, in the spirit of a ‘one-stop shop’, to have incorporated a brief glossary of the most common specialist terms, even if some terms are effectively glossed in the examples.

In short, this is a very useful book, not just for the special collections cataloguer but those working in more general collections who are likely to encounter artists’ books only now and again. As the authors say, once the challenge of cataloguing artists’ books is accepted, these objects can be immensely pleasurable and thought-provoking. Cataloguers are, artist-provocation and pressure of targets notwithstanding, uniquely privileged to be able to see and hold them.

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