Physical/Digital: The (Changing) Art of the Book at Reed College

I tumbled straight out of my first year at Reed and into the San Francisco Center for the Book. At first glance, these two institutions may seem totally unrelated. as it turns out, though, they share more than I originally thought possible.

San Francisco center for the Book

Lloyd Reynolds

Practically every Reed student knows the name Lloyd Reynolds. During his tenure at Reed College (from 1929 through 1969), Reynolds taught calligraphy, letterpress printing, graphic design, and art history. As well as his formal classes, he instituted the extracurricular “scriptorium” that so entranced and inspired Steve Jobs (and that continues to this day, every Thursday evening). He also began Reed’s collection of artist books and fine print books, personally collecting some of the college’s most significant fine press books. His effort has been furthered by subsequent art department faculty, who now teach courses in illuminated manuscripts, iconoclasm, 20th century German art, and Chinese art history, and have purchased book works to support their courses.

The outcome? Reed College has quite an expansive library of artist’s books, spanning everything from the avant-garde pieces of the early 20th century to more contemporary works by artists like Johanna Drucker and Xu Bing.

San Francisco Center for the Book

Tobacco Project (Red Book) by Xu Bing

It seems like the big question facing the community of book artists and book lovers these days is: does the printed book have a future? In the emergence (and ensuing popularity) of e-readers like the Kindle, many people see the end of the book as a physical object. The Reed library is taking a relatively new (though certainly not unique) approach to this question by attempting to digitalize their artist book collection.

The library’s online collection began as a resource for the course “Image, Text, The Book as a Sculptural Object,” which covers the history and fabrication of the book as an alternative space for art documentation and exhibition. The collection is organized according to the the major historical categories taught in the course, which include the livre d’artiste, the avant-garde, the conceptualist and the contemporary.

So, to digitalize or not to digitalize? This discussion continues even in the Center itself, given our obvious ties to the Internet Archive, whose mission is “universal access to all knowledge.”

“Knowledge lives in lots of different forms over time”, says Brewster Kahle. “First it was in people’s memories, then it was in manuscripts, then printed books, then microfilm, CD-ROMS, now on the digital internet. Each one of these generations is very important.”

Mary Austin’s response to her husband’s digitalization fervor? “Brewster says ‘give your collection to us, we’ll scan it all!’ But how do you scan a pop-up book, or a 3D sculptural piece?”

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Zoe is a student at Reed College, and an amateur playwright. During the summer of 2013 she is a volunteer at SFCB contributing her time and wit to the library and her sorting talents to the California job cases in the print studio.

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