Most people have seen a leather-bound hardcover book, maybe with gilded edges or marbled endpapers.
Artist books are different. Some are wildly different. Some are like child oriented pop-up books, but with electronics, games and mirrors.
Libby Hertenstein is helping push the envelope on the definition of a book.
“What few people realize is that we do have a rare books collection and we have a very small rare books budget that has been given to us through endowments,” Hertenstein said.
Hertenstein is the rare books librarian at Bowling Green State University. She is in charge of the artist books.
“I bought these things and we would have classes and I would bring them out and ask if it was a book. People would say, ‘No. It is not a book.’ So I would ask, ‘What is a book?’” Hertenstein said.
Students would say that it had to have a cover, or writing. Then they would talk about e-books.
“So if you think an e-book is a book — what makes the difference? So that’s really where we started,” Hertenstein said. “We also talk a lot about meaning too. Is this a successful book, because obviously the point of a book is to convey some sort of information. But the problem with artists’ books is that it sometimes needs some sort of interpretation.”
Wanting to spend money wisely, the library was increasingly asked for books that were 3D, or could be used in art classes. There were classes on bibliography and the history of the book. The requests came from widely different departments.
“My first piece I actually bought, over there, was ‘Haiku Journeys,’ by Vince Koloski. He is a visual artist who works in LED and glass,” Hertenstein said. “He is also the one who, for the 50th anniversary, we commissioned to make the library building with the fold-out.”
“Haiku Journeys” has a wood binding with raffia fiber cover that folds open to reveal pages with the words laser-etched on clear glass-like acrylic sheets. The words are almost impossible to read until the LED lighting is turned on, making the words glow and appear to float.
Another piece by Koloski is about science and technology and is much larger, incorporating calculators, rulers, an abacus and his signature LEDs lighting mathematical formulas.
The Jerome Library at BGSU is also pushing the concept of the meanings implied by rare. Limited availability does not always also mean expensive. Hertenstein compared Koloski’s works to some illuminated manuscripts.
“When people hear about rare books, they are expecting the Lilly (Library), or the Bentley (Library), where we’re only going to talk about high class literature and everybody has to wear gloves,” Hertenstein said. “You can touch this. You can feel this. When I bring out our Shakespeare’s third folios, people are afraid to turn the pages.”
The library has more traditional artist books, with handmade paper and custom bindings.
“This is beyond a custom binding. The other thing I like about the artists’ books is we can’t really digitize this. You have to come and see this,” Hertenstein said. “Even a picture doesn’t do it justice.”
Other artist book authors are Julie Chen and Robbin Ami Silverberg.
Silverberg has a piece in the collection that is the same poem, read only in a gold leaf mirror, but repeated on each page, with words and letters removed in each following iteration.
“People don’t realize until the very end that it’s actually the same work, the same poem. Each one becomes less and less and less. It’s supposed to be about identity and loss. Everything there is a process,” Hertenstein said.
There are the two new works from Julie Chen.
“She is a book artist from California who is pretty well known. Everything Julie Chen does is incredibly collaborative with the reader user,” Hertenstein said.
The reader also becomes a user, because the works are interactive.
Chen’s “View” is about death and loss. The elaborate multi-part piece has two accordion books that fold into a larger folding box, in a very specific and complex way.
The other Chen piece is a game called “Personal paradigms: a game of human experience,” which pushes the limits of what can be called a book from a creative interactive perspective.
“It is a game. It’s a very dangerous game. This is supposed to be a game where you are kind of probing your emotions and she’s trying to get you to give a very emotional response,“ Hertenstein said.
The board game comes complete with a classic 1960s spinner, that is more complex than the pop-culture games of the past.
Demonstrating, Hertenstein spins the word “family,” and follows that with an 8 on the roll of a dice, then randomly chooses eight tiles with words printed on them, the first two of which are “guilt” and “fear.”
“I’m supposed to be thinking about family and writing a poem about family, and what family means to me,” Hertenstein said. “We have found that people get very emotional with this game.”
The Chen pieces were purchased this summer and, like the other rare books, can only be used under supervision at the rare books department.
That has also changed with coronavirus.
“We are all working from home, and the building is not open to patrons,” Hertenstein said.
Artist books can be experienced from home with the expanding archive of internet coverage of the works.
“Before the virus came we were in discussions to make more interactive digital exhibits,” Hertenstein said.