The Artists’ Book Collection

A conversation with Lyn Korenic

artists' book: Ode to a Grand Staircase (For Four Hands)
Julie Chen and Barbara Tetenbaum. Ode to a Grand Staircase (For Four Hands).  Berkeley, CA: Flying Fish Press; Portland, OR: Triangular Press, 2001.

Lyn Korenic, University of Wisconsin-Madison, talks with Choice about the Artists’ Book Collection, an online collection featuring finely crafted artists’ books.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

lyn korenic head shot
Lyn Korenic is head of the Kohler Art Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she does collection development and library instruction. She oversees the creation of metadata records for the Artists’ Book Collection and provides orientation to the artists’ books. She is a past president of ARLIS/NA. She earned master’s degrees in art, art history, and library science from the UW-Madison and a Ph.D. in art history from the University of California-Santa Barbara. In the photo, Korenic is holding Shawn Sheehy’s A Pop-Up Field Guide to North American Wildflowers – Chicago: The artist, 2011.

The Artists’ Book Collection is comprised of over 1000 limited edition books representing individual artists and over 150 presses from around the world. Created as works of art, the books are exceptional in their experimentation with book form and the way they constitute a fusion of multiple elements. The collection emphasizes books that employ inventive structures, use interesting materials (e.g., latex rubber, paper towels, metal, wood), and are noteworthy examples of fine printing, printmaking, and papermaking. While the collection has a number of conceptual books from the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, Crackers by Ed Ruscha, the bulk of the collection is from the 1980s to the present. Often handmade, the books can employ both analog and digital printing techniques. While the collection is international in scope, many Wisconsin artists are represented. There is also a strong presence of work by African-American artists. Ongoing efforts involve collecting the works of Latin American, Asian, and African artists.

Who is the intended audience of the Artists’ Book Collection? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

Appealing to readers of all ages, the collection serves a broad audience. Both scheduled classes and drop-in visits by individual users are welcome. Because the collection is a hands-on laboratory, visitors gain a sensory understanding of the books as works of art. Undergraduate classes in drawing and design regularly visit the collection. Students studying book structure, letterpress printing, and papermaking also make use of it and apply that knowledge to their own work in the print studio or paper mill. Classes ranging from creative writing, history of the book, and material culture studies visit the collection as well. Students in multicultural studies can learn about issues dealing with race and gender, wealth and power, war and religion. Two examples that deal with such socio/political topics are Toña Wilson’s Stories Behind Bars and Edgar Heap of Birds’s Sharp Rocks. Books with interactive structures can attract those in the sciences. Once, two computer scientists interested in seeing our “tactile information systems” (i.e., pop-up and other moveable books) spent the afternoon with the collection. And in a visiting lecture, pop-up artist Shawn Sheehy discussed with students the close relationship between math and paper engineering. I also work with students from area high schools and colleges in Wisconsin and nearby states. Other users include local artists, Girl Scout troops (there is a book artist badge), and senior groups. Some local businesses encourage staff to use the collection for inspiration and the generation of new ideas. I have also done outreach by showing artists’ books to groups of K-12 students from around the area and to gatherings of Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.

artist book image: sweet grass
CB Sherlock. Sweet Grass: My Place. Minneapolis, MN: Seymour Press, 2010.

The Artists’ Book Collection is comprised of unique books from hundreds of different artists and presses. Could you please tell me a bit about the origins of this project? Who funded it originally? How were the artists and presses originally chosen?

The collection began around 1970 to support classes in book arts (printmaking, letterpress, and papermaking) at the UW-Madison. In 1967 book artist Claire Van Vliet filled in for a faculty member on sabbatical. She established a typographic workshop on campus and recommended that Walter Hamady be hired to develop a book arts program. His influential tenure at the UW-Madison over the course of more than 30 years attracted extraordinary students, many of whom are leaders in the book arts field. The Artists’ Book Collection was originally funded by the regular library book budget, but now is funded by the Leonora G. Bernstein Artists’ Book Endowment and other donor funding. The artists and original presses were chosen by former Art Librarian, William C. Bunce, who had an excellent eye for local and national talent in the field. He was a huge supporter of UW-Madison students in the program and acquired great examples of work by Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., Pati Scobey, Barbara Tetenbaum, Caren Heft, Katherine Kuehn, Jim Lee, Christopher Wilde, Ruth Lingen, Mark Wagner, Tracy Honn, John Risseeuw, and others. He also acquired the work of important artists such as Tim Ely, Ken Campbell, and Ron King and established standing orders with Claire Van Vliet (Janus Press) and Granary Books.

image of artists' book
Julie Chen. The Veil. Berkeley, CA: Flying Fish Press, c2002.

What are some of the challenges—technical, logistical, personal—involved in converting books to a digital format? What, if anything, is lost in that transformation? What is gained?

The Artists’ Book Collection database was created in 2007 to provide enhanced accessibility to the physical collection. It is a finding aid for our holdings and provides more in-depth cataloging than the online library catalog. By adding enhanced metadata, including the complete colophon information, as well as one or more images of each book, users can extract a lot of descriptive and visual data. Extensive searching of artists’ names and presses, formats, binding styles, and printing and production methods is possible. The database and physical collection thus work in tandem, giving users control over what they locate and experience. The metadata is created by Kohler Art Library staff using Dublin Core metadata standards and locally defined terminology for some headings and contributors. After cataloging, the books are imaged by the UW Digital Collections Center, where technical issues such as faithful color reproduction, translation of three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional images, handling considerations, and capturing the formatting of text can require extra time and effort. Since the rights to these books generally reside with the artists, any content downloaded must fall within fair use. Also, the database is not meant to be a surrogate for the actual object, a fact that might disappoint some users who wish to view everything online. It cannot replicate the physical aspects of the books (weight, texture, interactivity, even smell), which are lost in transition to digital. However it does serve as a great discovery tool, captures excellent documentation on the collection as a whole, and aids in the preservation of the material. The database continues to build on itself with more records and images added each semester.

image from artists' book
Sandra Fernandez.  Childhood Memories: When I Was Three.  Madison, WI: The artist, 1995.

Can you please elaborate on some of the specific bindings and mediums represented? What do these limited edition books add to the world of publishing and small presses?

Beyond the unbound book and simple pamphlet stitch, bindings include the accordion-fold, Coptic stitch, drum leaf, piano-hinge, interlocking or woven structure, Jacob’s ladder, wire-edge, and dos-à-dos, among others. Interlocking structure bindings were developed by MacArthur Fellow Claire Van Vliet and involve weaving paper without the use of glue. Invented by Daniel Kelm, the wire-edge, or Kelm binding, incorporates wires in the spine edge, allowing the book to open flat without a gutter. Structures include the tunnel book, flag book, exquisite corpse, pop-up, and vovelle, among others. We have miniature books, broadsides, and wall-mounted books. Various mediums include pochoir, lithography, relief printing, intaglio, drawing, painting, photography, and collage. Some books contain found objects such as the split walnut cover used by JoAnna Poehlmann in Drawings in a Nutshell II, or sewing needles that delineate the linear compositions by Yani Pecanins in Agujas, or actual grass stalks used by CB Sherlock in Sweet Grass: My Place. Production techniques, such as photopolymer printing and laser cutting, are often used as in Julie Chen’s The Veil. As works of art, these limited edition books surpass trade books and small press books in their resistance to be rigidly defined. They can be investigated solely as objects, for example, examining only binding or paper, or considered more fully along with content. Either way, the viewer experiences something not normally encountered in the local bookstore.

image from artists' book
Claire Van Vliet. The Gospel of Mary.  Newark, VT: Janus Press, 2006.

What specific books would you suggest that online visitors to the Artists’ Book Collection begin their explorations with? Why?

I would suggest online visitors look at Sandra Fernandez’s Childhood Memories: When I Was Three as it is a one-of-a-kind work that is sculptural (doll-like), autobiographical, and employs organic materials and crafts such as stitching, braiding, and sewing that she learned from the women in her family. Her mother’s skirt, a cyanotype on a pleated wood veneer, represents security as it poetically reflects the importance of textiles in our daily lives. Another book, Claire Van Vliet’s The Gospel of Mary, showcases her innovative woven-strip binding, superb letterpress printing, exquisite pulp paper covers, and a majestic pop-up that represents the journey of the soul. The political work of socially-conscious artist Maureen Cummins is exemplified by her Femmes Fatales which takes the form of a 19th century photo album and explores misogynous attitudes by showing the connection between women’s names and torture devices. Finally, Paper from Plants by Peter and Donna Thomas is a collaborative work by over thirty artists who contributed paper samples made from a variety of fiber plants such as fennel, coconut husk, Spanish moss, yucca, and others. These beautiful sheets of paper, all of which display different characteristics of texture, color, and weight are accompanied by short narratives written by the artists about the plants and papermaking process. All of these books ask us to look more closely at ourselves and at the world around us.

Poetry seems to be a particularly prominent aspect of this collection. How is the language of poetry enhanced through book art? What can current student artists and creative writers learn from this collection?

Most of the artists’ books contain some form of text such as poetry, literary narrative, and social commentary written by the author or by another contributor. In this way, they are highly collaborative productions. Granary Books is a good example of a press that publishes writers and artists together. For example, in The Lake by poet Lyn Hejinian and artist Emily Clarke, the interplay of text and image produces a creative synthesis of their work. The text seemingly swims around the page alongside the tadpoles beneath the water. The poetry becomes more organic and the images more playful. Student artists and creative writers can potentially envision fruitful collaborations and incorporate a more interdisciplinary approach to their work.

image from artists' book
The center piece of The Gospel of Mary is a pop up representing the journey of the soul – “upward from its bondage to the flesh and the lower world to its liberation in the higher celestial realm.”

Have you done any exhibits and public programs with the collection, and if so, how has it increased understanding of artists’ books?

Exhibits are a prime way to expose some of the “hidden” parts of the collection to users. Over the past fifteen years, we’ve mounted over thirty artists’ book exhibits on a variety of themes such as pop-up architecture books, textile-inspired artists’ books and alphabet books. A new initiative last year was the inaugural Bernstein Books Arts Lecture. We invited distinguished artist Maureen Cummins to give a public talk about her work and conduct a student workshop on printmaking. Our exhibit displayed nine examples of her work that tackle social justice issues. The 2016 Bernstein Book Arts Lecture will feature fine printer and wood engraver Gaylord Schanilec. He will present “Playful Science” on February 15 and conduct a student workshop. His recent books dealing with ecology, natural history, and landscape should attract those interested in both art and the sciences. The accompanying exhibit “Collected Specimens: Gaylord Schanilec and Midnight Paper Sales” will showcase his stunning work and reveal aspects of his process by displaying his end-grain blocks, engraving tools, and progressive proofs. Connecting students and the public directly with artists throws the practical aspects of the book arts profession into sharp relief. And exhibits and public programs are natural extensions of our acquisitions efforts and database project. They all work to engage users and help keep our library relevant.

Explore the Artists’ Book Collection at

About the interviewer:

This interview was conducted by Emma Raddatz. She is a publishing intern at Choice and a student at Wesleyan University.