Small Presses and Artist Books: a look into Reed's Special Collections

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I tumbled straight out of my first year at Reed and into the San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB), a nonprofit in the heart of San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood whose mission is to foster love of the printed word. They offer classes in bookmaking, calligraphy, and letterpress. This last is accomplished with the help of four beautiful old Vandercook cylinder presses and two even older pedal-cranked flatbed presses, all kept in pristine condition by a small handful of dedicated artists. In addition, half of their floor space is an exhibition area with cases and bookshelves full of beautiful small press and artists’ books. Similar to the current exhibit of small press books on display in the Hauser Library, these exhibitions presented books as more than a medium for information. Rather, they confronted spectators with the idea that to collect and exhibit books as art is to appreciate the work and love that goes into making these quotidian objects, and to realize that, perhaps, they are not as quotidian as they may seem. 

Some small press book are set letter by painstaking letter and printed by hand on an analog press — possibly a cylinder press a great deal like the ones I worked with at SFCB, or the one that is cherished and currently used in Reed’s art department. The ink was mixed and applied by hand, and then applied again if the work was in more than one color. Often, the binding was then hand-stitched (or hand-assembled in some other way). These books are lovingly assembled, representing the care that a few people had for a single subject – a care that led them to create the perfect way to protect and spread their words. 

Reed’s own appreciation for the art of the book stems from calligrapher and Reed professor emeritus, Lloyd Reynolds (English, 1929–69). During his tenure at Reed College, Reynolds also taught calligraphy, letterpress printing, graphic design, and art history. He instituted the Graphic Arts workshop that so entranced and inspired Steve Jobs, and that continues to this day as Scriptorum (which meets every Thursday at 6:00 PM in the Psychology building). “Reynolds’ intention [was] that the Graphic Arts Workshop would be the hands-on laboratory component of Reed’s great humanities tradition, a place where students would learn through direct experience what a book is as a material object, not simply as a bound repository of ideas and information,” says Gregory MacNaughton, Calligraphy Initative Coordinator and the current leader of Reed’s Scriptorium. 

Reynolds also began Reed’s collection of artist and small press books, personally collecting some of the college’s most significant examples of small press work. His efforts have 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 books to support their courses. 

These courses carry on Reynold’s legacy of care and attention paid to the art of the written word. MacNaughton quotes an anecdote from Reynolds’ teaching career: “Reynolds would sometimes throw a book at his students and challenge them to explain how it was made. ‘You lit majors who want to be writers, you don’t even know what a book is,’ he would say. ‘What kind of type was used? What kind of paper?’” With this, we are reminded that the book is indeed a physical manifestation of labor, just as much a piece of art as a conduit of information. Today, books created by Reed students in the class Gerri Ondrizek (Art, 1991–) teaches, “Image and Text: The Book as Sculptural Object,” are on display in the Vollum Lounge. 

Ondrizek has organized the materials from Special Collections she uses for her course in the Reed Digital Archives. In her syllabus she separates the works into four categories: Livre d’Artiste, “traditional fine press book: works that are often collaborations between artists and authors;” the Avant-garde, “works done from the turn-of-the-century to the present using innovative typography and design as a social and political commentary;” The Conceptualist, “works that use a variety of media, both conventional and unconventional, to primarily express ideas or document events;” and the Contemporary, “bookmakers and artists making works which range from object based works to letterpress editions.” The course makes extensive use of the artists’ books available in the Pierce Room, located behind an inconspicuous locked door in the lower-level of the library, but the archive extends well beyond artist books. 

Works archived in Special Collections occasionally surface as exhibits in the flat cases by the entrance to the library, where the scope of the collections is not readily apparent. During Paideia, Special Collections Librarian Gay Walker ’69 and Special Collections Assistant Mark Kuestner teach a number of courses including a Secret Library Tour that takes students through a number of rooms managed by Special Collections that, although accessible throughout the school year and containing many rare and treasured volumes, are often overlooked by the student body. The goal of Special Collections is, according to Walker, to “preserve the history of Reed.” Their archive of Reed theses goes beyond those that are available in the thesis tower, containing every thesis written at the College dating back to 1915. With the institutional memory in some departments going back to the 60s, when the collections of senior theses available in the thesis tower picks up, students are occasionally sent down to LL2 where the Special Collections are housed to look at the work of Reed students from over half a century ago. A complete archive of The Quest and other student publications, along with a vast number of College documents— from Simeon and Amanda Reed’s original texts to those surrounding the Centennial celebration—are also used in the classes Professor of History Jackie Dirks ’82 (History, 1991–) teaches to study the history of Reed College. 

Beyond the College’s uses, Special Collections gets frequent visits from members of the public and Reedies past and present who are looking to explore more of the archive. Popular features include the collection of Mary Barnard’s manuscripts, Lloyd Reynolds’ writings, including his correspondences with Philip Whalen, and materials on Gary Snyder, Whalen, and other Beat poets. Their collection of Reediana—books by and about those associated with the College—contains over 4,500 volumes, which they either purchased or been given. A large number of the treasured artifacts they have gathered have come to them in the form of gifts from those close to the college, and while their main focus is on collecting artifacts directly related to Reed, they have gathered a large amount of other materials including an extensive antiquarian map collection from the 1400s through the 1700s and illuminated manuscripts and other texts dating back to that period. While not directly related to Reed, many of the works reflect the tastes of the college. Walker says the historical collections have a strong focus on British history, as that was studied at Reed for many years. Calligraphy artifacts beyond the Lloyd Reynolds works and those of non-Reed Beat poets also reflect the tastes of the school in a similar manner. Some items, like the rugs found in the Pierce Room, are examples of how diverse the collection at is. 

In recent years, Special Collections has begun digitizing its archive, some of which is available as part of Reed’s Digital Collection, but only about five percent of the collection has been made available in digital form. To a great degree, the appreciation of the collections comes from the physicality of interacting with the artifacts. Works such as a copy of the first encyclopedia from the Enlightenment to artist books in the shape of a wedge or made out of cigarettes are best experienced in person.