Building a Repository of Artists' Books from the Women's Studio Workshop

By Ronald Patkus, Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History

"The space of a book is intimate and public at the same time; it mediates between private reflection and broad communication in a way that matches many women's lived experience." —Johanna Drucker, in The Book as Art (2007)

What is a repository? According to the American Library Association Glossary, it is simply "a place where archives, manuscripts, books, or other documents are stored." The glossary further notes that the term is frequently used synonymously with "depository," though both terms are distinct from "depository library," which refers to a library legally designated to collect publications produced by federal or state agencies. Does this mean that all libraries are "repositories?" Well, yes, in a certain way, but in practice people often use the term "repository" to refer to an institution that documents a specific topic in depth (perhaps one among many). Thus some libraries are repositories of the papers and/or publications of a particular author or organization. Today in library circles you often hear talk of institutional repositories and digital repositories, which are electronic equivalents of the more traditional form, where books and other physical materials are collected.

A number of libraries and institutions in the United States have collected artists' books from the Women's Studio Workshop (WSW), which today functions as the largest producer of such books in the country. Six in particular, though, have made commitments to document fully the output of the organization. They include five universities (University of Delaware, Indiana University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Yale University, Rochester Institute of Technology) and one college, Vassar College. The decision made by any academic institution to serve as a repository is based on numerous factors unique to that institution, and is reached after careful consideration. It also reflects a two-sided commitment, on the part of both producer and receiver, to preserve WSW books. This is certainly true in Vassar's case, where a repository was established in 2007.

I first learned about WSW in the spring of 2006, when I was co-teaching a course titled "The Medium of Print and the History Books." Robert DeMaria and I approach this course in a roughly chronological fashion, and we were looking for a way to consider artist's books at the end of the semester. I began to hear about the work of the WSW, and eventually contacted the director, Ann Kulmbach, by email. We had a couple of exchanges, and made plans for me to bring the class to the workshop at a mutually convenient time. This visit was a great success, opening new worlds to the students. They were especially intrigued to see the way materials and ideas came together in the various books by artists. It was also important for them to see the space itself; many students saw presses and other printing equipment and supplies for the first time. Needless to say, the visit added a great dimension to our discussion of artists' books. Ann and artistic director Tatana Kellner subsequently visited Vassar to give presentations on the WSW books to other classes.

It wasn't long before Vassar and WSW began to talk about the possibility of the college becoming an official repository of the works created by WSW artists. An agreement was soon reached whereby the library would acquire all books produced before 2007 over a five year period (i.e. by 2011), and would also commit to the ongoing acquisition of future books. The agreement thus solidified an existing relationship but also moved it forward in a significant way. Though several other institutions had already become repositories, there were still good reasons for Vassar and WSW to come together.

A first and obvious connection was concern for women and their work in the world. Vassar was founded in 1861 by Poughkeepsie philanthropist Matthew Vassar to create the first "fully endowed institution for the education of women." In the years that followed, the institution emerged as a leading center of higher learning, one which prepared many women for significant careers in a variety of fields. The college became co-educational in 1969 and entered a new stage of development, but Vassar still retains a strong sense of its history and commitment to issues important to women. The WSW, for its part, has women's issues at the core of its mission. Since its establishment in 1974 by Ann Kalmbach, Tatana Kellner, Anita Wetzel, and Barbara Leoff Burgeas, it has functioned as an "alternative space" for women artists, where books have been created that reflect the social and political concerns of women in recent decades.

Another connection between Vassar and WSW is an interest in books and the book arts. Vassar early on established a tradition of learning by "going to the source." It was the first college founded with an original art collection and gallery, and the library developed related holdings. Early in the twentieth century, legendary librarians like Dorothy Plum formed ties with publisher Mitchell Kennerley and printer Frederic Goudy of the Village press; today Vassar holds some of the country's finest holdings of these key figures. The library continues this interest in the book arts by maintaining relationships with artists, presses, and organizations in the Hudson Valley. The WSW engages in multiple artistic endeavors; it describes itself as "a visual arts organization with specialized studios in printmaking, hand papermaking, ceramics, letterpress printing, photography, and the book arts." Artist's books are a central focus, though, and since 1979 it has produced about 180 such books, testifying to its important place in the book arts community.

Vassar and WSW also have in common a strong interest in the Hudson Valley and its constituent communities. Vassar's president Catharine Hill has made a priority of working with the local community. Through the college's field work program, students and faculty interact with local agencies and organizations, for instance, and the annual Community Works Campaign provides financial support to local groups. From its founding in 1974, WSW has been a part of the local community. Its location in a historic building in Rosendale, New York and its ties with community members keep it grounded in the Hudson Valley, even as it develops a national and international reputation.

For all of these reasons—a connection to women, an interest in the book arts, and a commitment to working with local communities—Vassar was a logical choice to serve as a repository for WSW. The establishment of a new repository is mutually beneficial to both WSW and Vassar. WSW gains another stable site for the preservation of the artist's books that are created under its auspices, while Vassar further develops its library holdings in an area that has long been a collecting interest. These benefits are important, but the building of a repository perhaps has greatest value when it reaches further.

In a short period of time, the Vassar-WSW agreement has encouraged new activities and new collaborations. With a substantial number of WSW artist's books in the Vassar collection, students quickly became interested in researching individual artists and the WSW as an organization. A number of term papers have been written in succeeding iterations of the "History of the Book" course, and in other courses. Moreover, the presence of the WSW collection has now led to the establishment of a new course which will be offered at Vassar in the spring of 2011 by Professor Lisa Collins and Art Center curator Mary-Kay Lombino. Titled "Artists' Books from the Women's Studio Workshop," and cross-listed through the Art Department and the Women's Studies Program, this seminar will meet in the Archives and Special Collections Library and draw heavily on the WSW books. The repository is therefore clearly supporting the curriculum in multiple ways, the ideal result of any collection development endeavor at an educational institution. The current exhibition "Hand, Voice, Vision: Thirty Years of Artists' Books from the Women's Studio Workshop" and this, its accompanying catalog, also exemplify the collaborations that proceed from the existence of this repository.

In one sense, a repository can be seen as an internally-focused endeavor: materials are collected, cataloged, and preserved in order to build that special "place where…books…are stored." This is a traditional but important function, for libraries still are distinguished by the wealth of their collections. But I think it is fair to say that just as artist's books have both private and public dimensions (as insightfully noted by Johanna Drucker in the excerpt at the beginning of this essay), so too can organizations that support their creation, and institutions that house them. WSW provides an alternative space where women can work, while also sharing and celebrating this work. The Vassar repository reaches its fullest potential not just through collecting, but also by creating and realizing possibilities for teaching, research, and ongoing collaboration.