Robert Barnet Riter is assistant professor of library and information studies and archival studies coordinator in the University of Alabama’s School of Library and Information Studies. He holds appointments in information studies and book arts.
Book Art and the Representation and Containment of Original Sources
The book artist, like the archivist and scholarly editor, is a critic of documentary forms. In addition to being critical analysts of documentation, these practitioners are scholars and creators of structures that contain, preserve, and disseminate information. Book art, conceptualized as a documentary process, captures and represents information, historical evidence, personal and community memory, and more generally, archival evidence. In this capacity the book artist operates as a type of archivist, using unique forms and processes to capture, preserve, and present the past. The book artist also shares common practices with documentary editor. Documentary editors seek to provide wider access to primary source material through the selection, editing, annotation, and publication of historical sources. In publishing original sources, documentary editors provide access to archival content through a translation of materiality. While the actual physical artifact cannot be reproduced, through the shifting of documentary forms, archival content can be contained and more widely distributed. Book artists using historical documentation as their subject operate in a similar manner. In reproducing original sources, the book artist places original sources within unique material contexts.
This essay offers an analysis of the artists’ book as structures for representing and containing original sources, arguing that book art, as a process, creates works that can facilitate access to original sources in ways traditional archival collections and historical editions cannot. In addition to reproducing archival content, book artists have the capacity to embed this historical documentation within their own affective structures. This permits the documents to communicate to readers, and likewise, the user to communicate with the documents, within a context very different from that of the traditional archive. This evaluation examines how book art operates as a mechanism for reproducing original sources, and as mechanisms for containment, representation, explication, and interpretation.