Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

Artists' Books

Artists' books are works of art in book form or sometimes book-like form. 

What matters most is the intent of the artist when they created the work. An artists book can be made by hand or by machine, they can be printed as a single edition or limited editions. Artists have reimagined the book as a sculpture, stuffed animal, matchbooks, deck of cards, or an object with manipulated texts and images. 

Artists Books at USC Libraries are located in Specials Collections and the Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library (AFA). These collections support the curricular and research needs of the Art History department (Dornsife College), Roski School of Art and Design, USC students, faculty, and the scholarly needs of the greater Los Angeles arts community.

The selection criteria for both Special Collections and the AFA Library may include the following:

Below please see some examples of artists' books from USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library (AFA).


The Altered Book 
An altered book is an art object from an existing printed book that is not in use. You may use a book from your own collection that you have no need for anymore, or you could get an inexpensive book from a flea market or thrift store.

Alteration comes in many forms; you may choose to alter the book by rearranging the texts on the pages, by adding texts, adding images to form a collage, creating an illustration on the pages or gluing fabric onto the pages. Your choices are limitless. Some research and planning may be required once you decide to alter a used book. 

You can choose any theme that inspires you. But if you have trouble coming up with a theme, here are some suggestions: 

Since you’re reusing an old book, in a way, you’re saving it from ending up in a landfill. 
How will you alter your book to reflect your interest in sustainability?

Safer at home
What has been going through your mind during this pandemic?
How do you want to visualize what you’ve been thinking and feeling? 

Discover at a distance
Using images from the collections available through the USC Digital Library, create a collage that tells a story.

Carbon (un)Copy
Using an artists book from USC Libraries as inspiration, re-create your version of the artist book using whatever method you want.  

The supplies that you need will be determined by how you plan to alter your book. The following list is to get you started. 

1. Hardcover book
- Hardcover books with sewn binding are best. This type of binding tends to be stronger than glued binding. Please make sure that the book is not being used by anyone.
- The pages should not be coated or glossy; paper that is glossy will keep art materials from penetrating the surface of the page. Think about how you will be using the pages. You do not want paint, ink, nor glue to seep through easily.  

2. Glue (for collage or for gluing pages together)
- Depending on how thin the pages of the book are, you may want to glue some of them together to increase the thickness. Gluing the pages together may cause ripples, so adjust to fit your needs. 

3. Tape

4. Scissors/X-acto knife (Be careful when using either of these tools.)

5. Markers and/or white paint (gesso or tempera)
- ​These are for deleting lines of texts in the book. 

6. Pencils

7. Colored Pencils

Additional supplies (depending on need):
Watercolor paints
Acrylic paints


Further Readings:

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books . Granary Books, 1995.
The Century of Artists’ Books is one of the most important works about the development of artists’ books in the 20th century. 

The journal of artists' books : JAB.
Although JAB ceased publication in Spring 2020, print issues are held in Special Collections and online through USC Libraries’ subscription to the EBSCOhost database. Each issue of JAB includes essays, reviews, and projects on the book as a work of art. 

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Exhibition
A Century of Artists Books Oct 23, 1994–Jan 24, 1995
This exhibit from the mid-1990s explored the book as an art form and celebrates the impact of contemporary artists on books arts. The exhibition site includes select images from the exhibition and links to press releases and exhibition publications.

Weber, Marshall. Freedom of the Presses : Artists’ Books in the Twenty-First Century . Booklyn, 2018.
Freedom of the Presses reimagines bookmaking as a socially engaged practice that incorporates new models of production and distribution of artists books.  

Header Image: Hicks, Candace. Common Threads. Volume XCIV . Candace Hicks, 2018.

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