An Assembly on Using Artists’ Books to Decolonize Special Collections Libraries

Faculty: Marshall Weber

Course Description:

Late 20th and 21st Century Artists’ Books often have a primary component of self-referential, and often, critical, subjectivity. This ‘biblio-subjectivity’ can amplify, integrate, and/or contrast, the books material form with its subject matter. Beyond that biblio-existential ‘problem’, an Artists’ Book sitting on the library shelf often interrogates not just the other books around it but can also extend into a systemic critique of the library that houses the book, the institution that houses the library, and the society that created the institution. These ripples widen infinitely and affectively; artist engraver and bookmaker Anton Würth has suggested that many Artists’ Books are inherent critiques of conventional typography and language itself, and Nigerian activist and musician Fela Anikulapu Kuti often lectured about how written languages, are, in of themselves, tools of colonial oppression. “It’s not “Houston, we have a problem.”, it’s “Houston, we are the problem.”

Another extension of the ‘biblio-subjectivity’ of Artists’ Books is what I call ‘active actuality’, the Artists’ Book is often a first person testimony, in an activist modality where experience is prioritized over imagination, truth is heeded more than facts (facts can be organized in many ways), and the immediate social goals of the form are self-evident. I’m suggesting that the genre now tends towards engagement and explicit ideological, political, and social affiliation. This is not due to any inherent material or structural quality, (refutations of both Modernity and Objectivity are ubiquitous in the genre), but to tendencies in the current global social aesthetics and practice of the form. Simply put, the Artists’ Book often seems to strive not to be about ‘some-thing’ but to be that ‘thing’, to be of ‘that thing’.

These tendencies make Artists’ Books useful tools in deconstructing the White Supremacist, patriarchal, ableist, and colonialist pedagogies, and histories perpetuated by most major academic Special Collections Libraries in the United States. It is a major convenience that these Artists’ Books are already in the Libraries. They just need to be activated. This ‘Assembly’ will compile ways to activate Artists’ Books as tools of decolonization and will collectively build a basic users’ manual.  Avoiding any non-democratic pedagogical tendencies, we will all share our experiences in ongoing dialogs as I facilitate access to Artists’ Books, various ‘Special’ Collections, and educators in New York City that will support our endeavor.

Requirements

  1. Please read “Freedom of the Presses” before the course and do a simple one to two-page elementary school style book report that also introduces yourself to the other participants in the Assembly.
  • Please do a very rough one-page statistical analysis of both the holdings and budget of a Special Collections Library you are familiar with, focusing on quantification and categorization of books by book type, date, self-identified ‘race’/ethnicity, self-identified gender/sexual orientation, and religion’ of the primary makers, religion (as subject matter), geographic origin, general subject matter, and economic ideology.

Correlate the current acquisitions and access (cataloging, promoting, programming) budgets for these categories.

I am aware that this task is somewhat of an impossible ‘field of landmines’, do not get hung up on the research, consider the assignment a shared meditation. Feel free to email me with questions, mweber(at)booklyn.org.

Years taught: 2022

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