ArLiS Conference 2018, London

I have just got back from a few days in London, primarily to attend the 49th annual Art Libraries Society Conference at the Architectural Association in London. The conference involved several keynotes, presentations, lightning talks and workshops around art librarianship. Instead of just writing up my notes onto here (which seems fairly pointless a task as I am handing my notes in), there are a few crossovers in information from the different talks, which aided me in building an idea of the bigger picture surrounding arts and libraries.

Eleanor Gawne giving a presentation about special collections to an audience, powerpoint presentation showing two students looking through a collection in a library setting
Eleanor Gawne discussing “What’s so special about Special Collections?”

It had been a long time since I had attended a conference outside of the institution I study at, so was not only interested in what was being talked about, but also the format. I soon became aware that a majority of the delegates were librarians themselves, largely from an academic institution. I did feel slightly like an impostor, as an illustrator with no experience of working in a library apart from being an avid user of them. There were jokes that were completely lost on me, some information was skipped as it was assumed we all knew it, but overall I found it extremely interesting to see how libraries function, the issues they face. I am an illustrator currently working on creating a series of publications, and as a creator of literature, it was interesting to see how libraries would work with them and catalog them.

There were a few presentations that really stood out to me as being significant for my research project. I’ll go over a few of these and expand on the notes I’ve taken.

Pat Christie: The ‘art’ of librarianship: art and design librarianship as a creative practice

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Pat Christie on old and new power values

Pat discussed how institutions tended to follow old power values, where new power values may need to be implemented. Institutions are environments where the user and facilitator are given permission to explore. She says “the status quo can’t be the norm”, there needs to be a level of specialisation but also agility. Empathy in art and design is really important, with an understanding of student’s work and their language. The word “language” used felt really important, as I feel that self-expression is developing a language of understanding.

She talked about accessibility, something I’m very passionate about. She talked about how a large proportion of the students within her institution are dyslexic, so in cataloging and organising, they are sensitive to this. But accessibility is also important to different cultural norms and listening to feedback from users and providers can develop this.


Ann Chow: Uses of archives as creative activity: what does it mean for us?

Ann Chow discussing using archives as creative activity, stood at plinth in front of seated delegates, showing a powerpoint. Slide reads "it has moved to a more processed based approach"
Ann Chow discussing using archives as creative activity

What I found interesting about Ann Chow’s presentation was how having a structure still provided the freedom and creativity to explore possibilities. Personally, I find working in this way really helps me be more productive and proactive in seeking and playing with new ideas.

She talked about some of the workshops she led around archive materials. I was particularly interested in a workshop she did about “endings”. Still using a structured process, the students created different endings from different documents in the archive. She said that the narratives felt complete, even though they were written by different authors.

This felt relevant to my own work as I’m illustrating other peoples stories/letters. I have an understanding through experience, but ultimately I want the final illustrated letter to be one voice; a complete narrative that serves the purpose of educating and identifying a marginalised community.


Jane Carlin: Artists’ books as catalysts of social change

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Jane Carlin discussing artists’ books and social change

This was probably one of my favourite talks throughout the conference. Not only was it one of the most relevant talks to my research but introduced me to some sources that will undoubtedly be useful in my research. Jane Carlin is Library Director at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

She talked about how artists’ books are a powerful vehicle for social change, where libraries can foster a safe space for respectful discussion surrounding the material. Artists’ books can serve as personal narratives and can explore identity, for both the reader and the artist. By using them as starting points for discussion within small groups at institutions, reflection and critical thinking can manifest from group conversation and individual reflection. It can open doors to knowledge of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

What I found particularly interesting in this talk was how cultural competence was being developed. Carlin talked about the parallels between techniques used in family therapy; stopping, reflecting, not to change what they’re thinking but to identify and understand other trails of thought.

This made me really think about where I see my work situated after the exhibition. In collaborating, I have to be very wary of ethical issues and the requests of the contributors/authors, but I do feel that in order to fulfill my true intention for the project, there needs to be distribution to institutions that have limited representation of this marginalized group. I know that if I were to sell the books online on Etsy for example, I would have people interested in purchasing them that maybe suffer with the same or similar condition. That is one of my aims for the project, to provide material for people with similar experiences to identify with and find comfort in. I feel that that is the easy part though. To have this series of books in a collection that can be used as a source for open discussion surrounding invisible illness, I would be fulfilling the projects other aim to educate and engage with others from different backgrounds.

During the q and a at the end of the panel, I did ask Carlin a question, about how she sources artists’ books around marginalized groups if the nature of their marginalization makes it difficult to obtain them. Her response was that she is wary of gaps in representation within the collections and reaching to community groups outside of the institution has helped this.

I spoke to Jane after the panel and she seemed interested in my research project and would like copies of the finished work. I have her details in my London sketchbook, safe for when I need them.

This then got me starting to think about the form of my work. I have been calling them zines, but I want to raise the production value. When do they stop being zines and become artists’ books? What am I actually creating? Part of knowing the answer to this is where I see my work after I have finished the degree.

Melanie Grant and Solomon Szekir-Papasavva: Art and Health: challenging the norm

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Melanie and Solomon are from the Wellcome Collection, so was particularly interested in hearing from them as I have some of my work in their zine collections. They talked about how they have started to collect zines, with particular interest in perzines, as they want to represent live experiences of health within their archive, not just academic and medical voices. This is exactly what I want to achieve with my work.

They talked about how they are facing issues of copyright when cataloging work, particularly zines. They are looking for a more accessible way to negotiate with artists; they don’t want to get an artist to sign a document they wouldn’t understand. These are some of the ethical issues I am facing with the Invisible Letters project, as contributors want to be attributed in different ways, but I only have 15 people to negotiate with, so it is manageable for me.

Laura Elliot and Jess Mockridge: relationship between independent publishing and the art library

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Laura and Jessa run two publications: paratext and PaperWork. I was really interested in how paratext works, is printed and distributed.

Paratext is a conceptual format for poetry, unbound and stored in archival envelopes. There is also a website for paratext, which provides a space to translate into different mediums. The magazine has a collaborative dynamic, creating a community in print. Both publications feel a responsibility to present content fully authentically, addressing under represented groups and introducing editing as an art practice, working closely with artists in the editorial process.

Kirsty Fife: Ethical implications of archiving self-publishing

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Kirsty Fife is an archivist, zine maker and activist. She has experience of zines being archived without consent, using tags that could be deemed offensive to the creator. This is where ethical issues come into play again, having a dialogue with the creator about how the want to be represented.

During the q and a, I asked all 5 speakers from the panel how they distinguish artists’ books from zines, from a library cataloging context, as this is something I am struggling with defining myself. Their response emphasised the importance of back and forth relationship with the creator and the collector, building a dialogue and ensuring appropriate terms are used as not to offend the creator/ user.

There was also distinction between methods of making and production value in terms of defining artists’ books from zines. Kirsty said that zines have an “anti-professional” quality, using simple techniques and materials. Also, the form of the material is dependent on how it is circulated; are they being sold at zine fairs or book fairs? It seemed that there were no clear distinctions, but leaving it to the creator to define what they see their work as.


Johanna Drucker: The special case of artists’ books

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The last keynote of the conference was with Johanna Drucker. I was particularly interested in this talk and got some great notes for research.

Her talk largely dealt with value vs values. Production values can be seductive. A well made and out together book can be enticing, but what is the idea, argument or premise behind the work? There was emphasis on how artists’ books should make us rethink our understanding of life experiences and still be useful now; what more can we get from it at a second look? This felt interesting to me as this is what I’m trying to achieve with my books. I want to be able to give a new perspective on what is invisible, what is unintentionally marginalised. I have since started to read some of Johanna Drucker’s books she has written on artists’ books which will more than likely feed into my research.


Overall, the experience of the conference was really interesting. Not only did I learn a lot and make some really useful contacts, I got the chance to see people present their work outside of a university institution, and was interesting to see how people presented. Some were more dynamic and audience engaging. A few weren’t natural presenters, so found it hard in places to take in what they were presenting. This is useful for future presentations, especially with my last one for the degree coming up soon.


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