By Eva Isherwood-Wallace, PhD Placement Student with Contemporary British & Irish Published Collection.
As part of the British Library PhD placement scheme, I spent three months investigating small publisher fairs across the UK and Ireland to support collection development for artists’ books and fine press. This placement was based in the Contemporary British and Irish department, under the supervision of curator Jerry Jenkins. Small publisher fairs are held all over the UK and Ireland, showcasing the work of artists and small presses that produce handmade and limited-edition books. Curatorial staff from institutions like the British Library regularly attend these events to acquire new publications for their collections and to develop their relationships with individual artists and presses.
What can the British Library learn from these book fairs? By comparing lists of exhibitors to the British Library’s holdings, we can see whose work is being collected and where they are based. This is particularly important when assessing the regional diversity of the collection. During my placement, I had the opportunity to attend a few of these book fairs. My first visit was to the Small Publishers Fair in October 2022. Around 60 artists and publishers from across the world gather to share their work each year at Conway Hall in Bloomsbury. The hall was packed, filled with artists, printmakers, publishers, editors, librarians, curators, collectors, students and interested members of the public. These fairs are a great opportunity to discover unique publications from a wide variety of places. I left with a bag filled with as much as I could carry home with me, including a pamphlet from a Yorkshire-based printmaker, Irish writing from Aberdeen and a French novel printed in London.
As well as seeing all of these interesting books and meeting the artists and presses behind them, attending the fair allowed me to do some in-person detective work. With my list of exhibitors, I made my way around the busy room to work out which exhibitors were relevant to the placement project. For my purposes, ‘relevant’ meant artists and presses based within the UK and Ireland who produce work in editions rather than unique artworks. This means that each individual work has multiple copies (e.g. in an edition of 50) because one-off pieces are considered manuscripts, a category handled by a different department. Exploring the fair in this way took most of the afternoon, mostly because I wanted to stop to examine every book on every table!
Before my visit, there were a few questions I particularly wanted to find the answers to. Do online fairs allow for wider regional representation? Did some of the changes made because of the Covid-19 pandemic actually benefit artists and presses based outside of London? We might expect to see a big shift in the locations of exhibitors when a fair is held online. However, the data I collected during my research suggests that the story is more complicated.
More Scottish presses participated in the online Small Publishers Fair in 2021 than in person in 2022. However, nearly all of these presses had already travelled to the Small Publishers Fair before the pandemic. Only one Scottish press, Stichill Marigold, exhibited at the Small Publishers Fair for the first time when it was held online. This was also the case for artists and presses based in Wales and the Republic of Ireland. This points towards the close-knit nature of this publishing community, with exhibitors returning year after year to the same fairs. For artists and presses in this industry, online provision does not necessarily equal accessibility. This can be partially explained by the difficulty in accurately representing work of this kind on a screen.
The work of these artists and presses is tactile and material. The making of artists’ books and fine press editions involves traditional techniques and equipment, with some publishers like Distillers Press in Dublin using printing presses that are over a century old. Artists’ books also act as physical documents of experience. Some recent works have been produced in a ‘lockdown diary’ format, which provides artists with a way to record their experiences of the pandemic. By acquiring these works for the collection, the British Library can safely archive them and make them available to readers who would not have otherwise been able to see them.
One example of the ‘lockdown diary’ artist’s book is Setting by Helen Douglas of Weproductions, a press based at Deuchar Mill in the Scottish Borders. Attending these fairs opens up the possibility of face-to-face encounters between collectors, curators and artists from across the UK and Ireland. We were able to meet with Helen Douglas and see her latest works, and this also gave me the chance to observe a British Library acquisition in the wild. The value of these fairs as meeting places underlines their importance to the British Library’s collecting practices.
From the data I collected during this visit, I was able to develop my understanding of the British Library’s relationship with small publisher fairs. By comparing the list of artists and presses at the Small Publishers Fair 2022 with the British Library’s holdings, I found that 70% of these exhibitors can be found in the Library’s collection. In contrast, 29% of exhibitors at another major fair—Bristol Artist’s Book Event 2022—are represented in the collection. In preparing my final report at the end of my placement, I thought about how the British Library can develop its collecting strategies to ensure that the collection is inclusive of artists and publishers across the UK and Ireland.
It is, however, important to remember that this data doesn’t necessarily have a simple explanation. While the comparison between the Small Publishers Fair at Conway Hall and the Bristol Artist’s Book Event might suggest a skewed regional representation based on proximity to London, there are other factors at play. With 42% included in the British Library collection, more exhibitors at Dublin Art Book Fair 2022 are represented than those in Bristol. Nevertheless, these small publisher fairs are key to identifying regions that are underrepresented in the collection. By ensuring that the British Library has a presence at small publisher fairs throughout the UK and Ireland, curators will be able to acquire a diverse range of exciting new works for readers to discover.