This post has been updated to include new information about Artstor’s public collections, formerly made available on Shared Shelf Commons.
Whether you consider illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages the beginning, or you start with William Blake’s self-published books of poetry in the 18th century, artists have been making books for centuries. But as Toni Sant recounts in his book Franklin Furnace and the Spirit of the Avant-garde, the term “artists’ books” is fairly recent. It only appeared in 1973 as the title of an exhibition at Moore College, and it wasn’t until 1980 that the Library of Congress adopted the term in its list of established subjects.
This delay might stem from the infinite variety of forms that artists’ books take, sometimes pushing our understanding of what a book is to unexpected extremes.