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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 30, No. 2, Jun 2007

The National Library and Archives of Canada’s exclusionary policies in regards to their definition of artists’ books

The Library and Archives Canada is using an outdated and restrictive definition of an artist’s book to justify its policy of accepting non-traditional bookworks into its collection without providing payment to the artist.

I have been producing artist’s books since 1989 under the name Productiongray editions. My work is represented in international collections in Canada, the United States, Asia and Europe. I just submitted 12 artist’s books to the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to be considered for acquisition. Included in this submission was a trilogy that questions the foreign polices of the Bush administration (“My Car Doesn’t Need A Gas Tank”, 2006; “The Anthrax Kit by Haliburton”, 2006; and “The Mission”, 2001). Each was produced in a limited edition of 101 signed and numbered copies.

“The Mission” and/or “My Car Doesn’t Need a Gas Tank” have been acquired as artist’s books by The National Gallery of Canada, The National Library of Quebec, Otis College of Art and Design (Los Angeles), Tate Britain (London, UK), University of the West of England (Bristol, UK), Artexte (Montreal), to name a few. They are defined as artist’s books according to the criteria exercised by the acquisitions departments of these collections. Both of these titles are also for sale at the following artists’ books stores, Printed Matter (New York City), Bookartbookshop (London) and Boekie Woekie (Amsterdam).

Legally, all books published in Canada must be deposited into Legal Deposit and the LAC collection, but special editions and artist’s books are presented to a selection committee to be acquired. If the LAC jury does not consider a submitted work to meet its traditional definition of an artist’s book, the Library will not acquire the work for the collection and will legally take the two submitted copies -one for Legal Deposit and one for its collection - without any payment to the artist.

Unfortunately, the selection committee of Library and Archives Canada does not consider two of the books in this trilogy, “My Car Doesn’t Need A Gas Tank” and “The Mission”, to be artist’s books. As a result, they refused to pay any artist’s fee for the publications.

I requested the adjudication notes from the committee and the only response I received was that the two publications in question utilise la reproduction photo-mécanique , and therefore are not classified as artist’s books so LAC will not pay for them. The definition provided by LAC of photo-mécanique is as follows,

Process prints are the opposite of manual prints. By definition this means they are not original prints. In process printing, the printing plate is not made by hand but mechanically (by process). Nearly all process prints you will come across involve the use of photography. These are called photomechanical prints. Photomechanical printing, which comes in a wide variety of forms, was designed for commercial mass production. The photomechanical processes reproduce images, for example, reproducing a painting for an art book, a photograph for a magazine or a cartoon for a newspaper.

This definition is very similar to that of off-set printing. However, “My Car Doesn’t Need a Gas Tank” and “The Mission” are not reproduced via off-set printing (they are laser printed). Therefore I think the issue being raised under the guise of printing technique is not that of reproduction method, but rather the binding of these two bookworks since all the other artist’s books I submitted were bought and considered artist’s books for the collection and they were printed using the same laser printer. These two books are both saddle stitched (stapled) on one end, and then covered with a plastic binder that was purchased at an office supply store. Does one have to learn traditional printing and binding techniques and incorporate that craft into the work of art to make an artist’s book?

LAC also informed me that their acquisitions policy restricts full payment to editions of 100 copies or more; for larger editions, they pay half the price for the legal deposit copy, and only half the price for the copy retained for the collection (if the edition is fewer than 100 copies they pay half price for the legal deposit copy and full price for the copy in the collection). This effectively places a lower value on any art works that do not fit into the craft definition of livres d’artiste, which are traditionally produced in small editions of less than 25 copies. I could accept LAC’s policy if the editions in question were not signed and numbered; however, they are signed and numbered, and I do not believe art works should be devalued simply because more than 100 artist’s books were produced in the limited edition. Indeed, my perspective on this subject is supported by Printed Matter in New York City, which distributes my artist’s books. Printed Matter is a well-established artist’s bookstore that has been in existence since the mid-1970s, and their policy concerning artist’s books is that they will not take any editions of under 100 copies for distribution.

I know that the definition of an artist’s book is a very political and much-debated subject amongst bibliophiles and members of the contemporary art community. The majority of international institutions that collect artists’ books have expanded their classification of an artist’s book to include artists’ zines and small press. These “alternative” publications are produced by artists, sometimes even in signed and numbered editions, and are artist’s books; however, this evolving definition is not within the scope of the artist’s book as described on the LAC website:

Artist’s book: A book which itself becomes an object of art. Content, image, and form are considered essential to the object, but text and traditional book structure might not be used. An edition of one is common.

Livre d’artiste: Traditionally, a book illustrated with original prints, printed by hand in a small edition on fine paper. In livres d’artiste, the emphasis is placed on the illustration whereas in private press books the quality of the printing is more important than, or as important as, the illustration.

I would argue that a more contemporary and relevant definition of the artist’s book is found on the website for Printed Matter and other international collections and libraries:

The topic of artists’ books and artists’ publications can be a controversial one. If one were to ask a room filled with artists, collectors, scholars, critics, and members of the public to define the term “artist’s book” the conversation would quickly turn into a debate. Many think of artists’ publications in the context of early 20th century European “livres de luxe” – those finely produced, limited edition, precious volumes of Picasso, Matisse, and other decidedly European modern masters. Others might describe artists’ books as unique or limited edition craft-objects that formally resemble books, but that are actually closer to sculpture. Still others would place artists’ books at the intersection of fine arts and literature – in either limited or short-run editions – and would cite the collaborations between Max Ernst and Paul Eluard as exemplary. Finally, some might consider monographs or exhibition catalogues as artists’ books or artists’ publications.

Printed Matter’s founders subscribed to the idea of the artist’s book as “artwork for the page,” focusing particularly on those publications produced in editions of one hundred or more. They envisioned these publications as democratizing artworks – inexpensive artworks – that could be consumed alongside the more traditional output of paintings, drawings, sculptures or photography. These books were not simply catalogues of pre-existing artworks, but rather works in their own right, “narratives” intended to be seen in a printed, bound, and widely disseminated format. Printed Matter, New York City

The Library defines an artist’s book as a mass-produced book of which the artist has assumed the role of author to document or realize ideas as art. The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The Artists’ Books collection contains books (normally defined as a number of pages attached to each other in some way) that are wholly or primarily conceived by (though not necessarily actually produced by) an artist and that are made in multiple editions. The Tate Britain, London

Artists’ books are exceptionally varied and creative by their very nature. The complex medium employs the book, in any of its various guises (scroll, codex, fold-out or single sheet boxed, to name but a few forms of books) as an original work of art. They usually integrate the formal means of conception and production with aesthetic or thematic aspects. Artists’ books are considered unique works of art in one-of-a-kind or small edition multiples. Some now are mass produced. The variety of its form makes the artist book difficult to define. The twentieth century witnessed particularly varied and creative experimentation with artists’ books culminating with an expansion of the medium in the ’60 and ’70s. California became a center of production. Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles

The growing multidisciplinarity of artists over the last three decades has led to the development of new approaches. Thus, artists’ books contribute to the decompartmentalization of the various forms of artistic expression and borrow from new visual arts practices such as art videos, computer art, mail art and copygraphy, as well as from many individual or “underground” practices. National Library of Quebec.

LAC’s policies make me wonder how many other Canadian artists’ bookworks the Library and Archives Canada has either rejected or accepted without payment to the artist because they did not fit into the “traditional” definition of a livres d’artiste. The Library is a national institution that must redefine its policy if it is to reflect a balanced representation of Canadian artist’s publications in its collection.

I have resubmitted the two books in question to the selection committee, with the request that the jury provide a detailed explanation of why my works are not artist’s books or instead to expand their exclusionary definition of an artist’s book to an open inclusive policy that can incorporate non-traditional artist’s publications as artist’s books in the collection. The meeting is in September. If you have any comments concerning LAC’s acquisitions policy they can be addressed to : Director, Acquisitions, Library and Archives Canada.

To see the works in question, please visit my website at

Gray Fraser
Productiongray editions