Interview with the Quarantine Public Library — Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.


LS: Given the ongoing reckoning around equity and representation in the arts, how are you approaching representation in the collection?

KG: We know network-based approaches often reinforce existing disparities, so it’s important to me to take that into personal account when I consider our curatorial impulses, and to continually question my own frame of reference. By encouraging artists who are unknown to us to show us their work, we want to challenge the ways in which our own privileged worldviews might leave us removed from the concerns of underrepresented artists.

TH: We have thought about it and continue to. Part of the reason that we had such a great breadth of response is that we didn’t ask specifically for work from particular genres or media. Our artists aren’t all printmakers or all young; there are poets and writers in there, which also strengthens our approach. I also like the idea of artists coming to our attention that we don’t know, and wouldn’t have otherwise, through the project.

KG: Yes, the breadth of genres that function within this form gives us more latitude to practice curatorial discretion. We want to prioritize a balanced collection across disciplines that currently overrepresent white artists.

A handful of QPL books. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Did you pre-plan the genres that organize the website, or did you come up with categories once you began receiving the books?

TH: We had an idea of standard categories for both genre and media that artists could choose from when submitting their works. We did do some editorial work in making suggestions to artists about assignments we felt were more appropriate. 

One thing I like about the project is that it’s stealthy. The format is simple and self-contained, and it still gives me a thrill, even though I’ve been making books for a long time. 

That’s all we needed to do this work. It wasn’t about artists’ books. It’s about the power of the medium, not about the medium itself. That’s why I’m less affiliated with writing that discusses what artists’ books are; whatever you’re feeling when you’re doing it is more interesting to me than some of the discussions about it. But I think it is really stealthy that QPL is introducing a bunch of people to book arts.

KG: There’s a double-edged sword for a book artist, where in order to make a living from your work, you often have to sell that work at a price that undermines the ethos of producing an artists’ book. I think most artists working this way have reservations about the fact that their books are sold to institutions for three and four figures. It seems like they would really ideally like their work to circulate, but the economic circumstances are limiting. One thing I like about our project is that it promotes a consideration of artists’ books from a perspective that prioritizes distribution.

Looking forward, I love the idea of inviting artists whose work is usually inaccessible and coveted, as a way of creating an opportunity to collect among those who don’t usually get to own art. When you print something out from this collection, you have ownership of that work. You’re really getting to handle somebody’s work, and it requires you to be complete.

Cover and interior view of First the Others, Now You by Patrick Johnson. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: As you move forward and add new books, are there any gaps in the collection that you have identified and hope to fill? Or are you still exploring and seeing where it goes?

TH: I would love to invite someone who does children’s books. If someone who already does them was interested in the format, it would be really quite a sweet gift. 

KG: I’d love to see research enter the collection—non-fiction that is well-sourced and considered, but available in a way that’s more easily understood. And I think we can use more poetry.

TH: I agree. I love the example of David shields’ book, Measuring the manufacturer’s stamps produced by Hamilton Mfg Co c1910 – c1950, which is this kind of oddball little thing, but will be darn useful as a reference tool for a bunch of people. I have had the pleasure of working with David. The form can hold a lot. We certainly haven’t exhausted it. 

KG: H.R. Buechler’s book, Granular Luminosity, is one that responds to the form foremost as an image field, although it can also be understood as a codex.

TH: Pati Scobey considered that with her book, o. It’s beautiful as an image, and she’s inviting people to color it, but she put a lot of work into making sure the drawing would resolve itself in a pagination format. More of that would be cool.

Open view of Granular Luminosity by H.R. Buechler. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: It’s very difficult to succinctly evoke the spirit of an artists’ book — are you two writing the descriptions on your site or are they provided by the artists?

TH: We asked the artists for a blurb and gave an example to help, because we needed something succinct. In a few cases, we edited or wrote them.

KG: We built the site as artists were working on their books, and shared its password so contributors could see it evolving in real time. As part of this, we had dummy content in place, like books with invented names by famous artists. One placeholder was reportedly by van Gogh, so the blurb said something like, “A tortured artist and his easel in France.” That was another way of demonstrating the spirit we wanted to capture.

I tend to give dry, straightforward answers in those instances. I loved that some artists used the opportunity to say something that was true, but maybe in a way that was more oblique or emotionally resonant.

Front and back covers of o by Pati Scobey. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Tell me about EveryoneOn and why you decided to have a philanthropic angle to the project. 

KG: We knew it was a privilege to work on this project. In making the effort to attract an audience, there was an opportunity to use that attention to underscore more urgent needs. QPL depends on access to digital communication, which highlighted how important it felt to advocate for digital equity—especially because so many students are without internet access right now, and require it to use tools that are crucial to their education and sense of well-being. EveryoneOn brought all of those pieces together.

LS: If you want to brag about how much money you raised so far, feel free to report on the fundraising.

KG: The project launched four days ago, and we have raised $535.* Moving forward, as we potentially see users returning to the site over time, we hope our audience will be suggestible to making donations they may not have yet.

[*QPL had raised $1,000 for EveryoneOn by August 5th.]

LS: That’s incredible! Especially for a new project. Congratulations.

KG: We were both surprised by the metrics. We had visitors from 22 different countries on the first day of the project. It was fun to see the Forbes article get picked up by Latest Nigerian News and Samachar in India. It’s so exciting to imagine people in different countries all making the same book at the same time.

The QPL donation page, which directs proceeds to EveryoneOn. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Opportunities to have a book in an exhibition or collection on another continent would normally be rare. This is a great way for physical copies of books to proliferate further than they could otherwise.

KG: Yes, and that would certainly be another gap in the collection: international works and works that aren’t in English.

TH: That’s one reason I regret that not every artist put their name on their book. I wish that it wasn’t quite so anonymous—It’s something to think about as we go on.

KG: The possibility that you could come upon a book and not know how to find out more about it is disappointing. When the first works started to roll in, Tracy also mentioned that we might have put an imprint on the books.

TH: That’s partly why I’m interested in this cataloging question from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection. Those standard questions in cataloging are hard to deviate from, which makes it challenging when certain things don’t fit. Will Amelia put down QPL as the publisher? That’s a question. The city of origin is another standard notation in a catalog record. Another approach was shared by Lyn Korenic, the director of the Kohler Art Library, who told me she would catalog the URL for their artists book collection.

Double page spread of Book of Random Tables by Amze Emmons. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: I’m interested in whether the Quarantine Public Library is a meta project, a publication in and of itself. Born-digital artists’ books are overlooked, and haven’t always fared well in an institutional setting. I wonder if it will be collected digitally in addition to the hard copies.

KG: There are so many projects that are born physically and then cataloged digitally—it’s odd to think about this project working in the opposite direction. It’s a point of frustration for me, and a sort of an inescapable problem for web designers in general, that this thing that you make will eventually no longer be supported. (There have been times that I wanted to see a digital artist’s book, but could only see thumbnail images of it in Johanna Drucker’s book.) We are coming up against that same question now as we think about how to future-proof the website. What type of developmental considerations have to be taken into account? 

TH: It’s interesting as a preservation question because the project is ephemeral, in the sense that it came out of this really specific time and the response to it. That underscores it so much. But in the long term, the idea of a digital place that supports books that can be downloaded and assembled—that is a preservation question. I have training in preservation, so I’m always interested in that.

LS: Especially with a website. For example, you were describing the fictional placeholder books you had added to the website, which maybe affected the outcome of the contributions — will that be documented? Are you preserving what goes on behind the scenes?

TH: We do have some screenshots because, as I said, I want to see this again. There were some really beautiful mockups of early pages, but I don’t know if we have them all.

KG: There are some. The challenge of digital preservation is that it has so far relied upon static media to capture these forms, but building a website is much more fluid than what that can account for. It’s difficult to document in a way that is at once comprehensive and comprehensible.

An early version of the project’s website. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Do you want the Quarantine Public Library to persist for as long as possible? How far into the future do you plan to add to it or support it?

TH: It depends on our time and abilities to keep doing the project the way we have, and figuring out at each stage how to do the next steps. We are committed to growing through the end of the year. I’ve been thinking about listservs that have been really important to me, on book arts and letterpress history; sometimes they have to shop around for an institutional home. They seem so old fashioned, but they’re hella permanent compared to other things. I really don’t know the answer to the question, but I would be interested in thinking about an institutional home. Whether that’s possible, I don’t know. 

KG: I’d say it depends not just on how we feel, but on what the response is and continues to be.

LS: Is there anything that you want to ask one another while we’re all on Zoom together?

TH: I look forward to talking with Katie in the coming weeks about some of the things that came up here, especially the preservation questions. We’ve had a pretty close view for a while. We aren’t exhausted by it by any means; it’s still very stimulating and exciting, but I don’t feel right now that I have had enough time to zoom out. I am excited to consider what will emerge from that. I think of the project and the work we’ve done as being for us, with benefits for other people. And I feel perfectly happy about that. If it is a model for people to think, Things are all fucked up, and I don’t know what to do, and I feel despair, and they see QPL and think, That’s really cool. I could do something like that — that would make me very happy.

Interview with the Quarantine Public Library — Part 1 of 2

The following interview took place via Zoom on July 20. It has been edited for clarity.

The Quarantine Public Library homepage. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

The Quarantine Public Library is a collection of artist-made books, which can be downloaded, printed and assembled for free. The project launched in July 2020 under the stewardship of co-founders Katie Garth and Tracy Honn. Though not explicitly about the pandemic, the Quarantine Public Library is very much a product of this time, so I was eager to speak with Katie and Tracy during these early days of the project.

Tracy Honn (left) and Katie Garth (right) with QPL artist Kathleen O’Connell at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s 2018 Wayzgoose. Courtesy of Jim Moran.

Katie Garth is an artist in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in Printmaking from the Tyler School of Art and a BFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Katie has a background in graphic design and book arts, and enjoys teaching, writing, and presenting on topics related to contemporary print practice.

Tracy Honn is a printing history educator, curator, and printer living in Madison Wisconsin. She is senior artist emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directed the Silver Buckle Press, a working museum of letterpress printing. She serves on Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s executive board of directors.


Levi Sherman: How did the idea for the Quarantine Public Library come to you? Was there a kernel of it before the pandemic?

Tracy Honn: There was a kernel. I had told Katie I’d always thought it would be cool to have an exhibit of artists’ books using that format, and that they should be downloadable, but just in casual conversation. 

Katie Garth: I heard Tracy’s idea and thought, “why not?” We could do it now—we had the time. 

TH: It would never have happened if Katie hadn’t said, “let’s do it.” Although I had the spark, Katie really has the abilities to do this. We shared sensibilities in terms of the library — the way the ideas got developed and the things we care about — but I feel like Katie had a better sense, much earlier than I did, of how it could function and really be a library. Once we decided on a name, a lot of the work came from gut. Don’t you think?

KG: I think it was gut. And there was a sense of urgency, even if, after a certain point, it was relatively self-sustained.

TH: We wanted to do it as quickly as possible, so the artists had a very quick turnaround.

KG: Many told us that having one specific thing to focus on, and a deadline by which to be held accountable, was helpful because of how much feels really vague and abstract right now. They said, “I haven’t been able to make anything lately, but I can do a one-page book.”

Detail of 20/20 by Phyllis McGibbon. Courtesy of the artist.

TH: Many of us were feeling like we couldn’t really make art—what’s the point? With so many large questions, it’s hard just trying to focus. This was a very precise goal that had a certain positive “whoo!” feeling about it.

KG: I also got that feeling from working on the project itself; it gave me a sense of purpose. The point of the website was for an audience to enjoy it, but by the time it launched, that felt like dessert, because the work had already been meaningful.

LS: Can you talk about the process of working on a collaborative project in the middle of a lockdown?

TH: So often, you’re side-by-side at the press, or working things out in person. But we both like to email and text, and actually, I think it worked brilliantly. From home, you can be more responsive.

KG: The lockdown was not much of a limiting factor, because we’ve maintained our friendship over a distance for a long time. I can’t think of how we might have approached the process differently.

Double page spread of Letting Off Steam by Olivia Fredricks. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: How have your backgrounds in art and design prepared you for this project?

TH: I’ve done a lot of collaboration, and earlier in my career I was really interested in it as a subject. I’m always fascinated by collaboration, especially in Book Arts. I just worked on a book art show that’s at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW–Madison right now, and one section is all about collaboration. 

KG: It was incredible to have to articulate my thoughts to someone else. There were several moments where I certainly would have made a mistake if I were working alone, but because I was talking things out with Tracy, I only fell on my face in front of her.

I learned a lot from Tracy about taking communication seriously, and about the benefits of writing a really good prompt for your group. She showed me a lot about the ethics of situating yourself clearly and being responsive to the artists in organizing a project like this.

Double page spread of (NOT) OK by Sage Perrott. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

TH: Because I don’t have the technical skills that Katie has, I felt like she was having to do more work, but it really worked out very well. It’s very blended. There is a lot you can point to and know that it’s Katie’s work, and I think it’s important to know that—but I’ve always liked that when people work together, it’s not so important who did what, but that you share a sense of ownership. That doubles your success.

Because Katie has a background working with clients in a design setting, there is a good way in which she’s not too attached to something. She cares about it— we both feel really passionate about the project—but it didn’t feel like, “Oh, you don’t like the thing I did here.”

It makes it more fun, really. The stakes weren’t really ever high, except for us, because we cared about it. That’s a cool thing; nobody was telling us what to do. 

KG: It’s funny to hear you say you felt like I was doing the work. This just didn’t feel like work at all for me. There was real joy in the fact that we were only accountable to each other, even though—or maybe because—that is the most important kind of accountability to me. It was both motivating and freeing.

LS: What’s something that you’ve learned so far? 

KG: I was surprised by how many happy returns there were. My web design background taught me the difficulty of influencing user behavior. The idea that we could design a website where people would not only click the button, but then print out a design and fold it into a book, and then read it, and then take a picture of it and share it with us—that was a tall order. But when it started happening, it felt so rewarding. I had never experienced that level of interaction within a digital project before. 

When we were discussing technical underpinnings of our prompt, Tracy asked, “what if someone is printing this on a press?” I asked, “do you really think people are going to be hand-setting type for this?” And sure enough, Walter Tisdale sent us a photo of his book, To Thine Own Self Be True, alongside the wood type he used to make it.

Walter Tisdale’s work-in-progress for his book To Thine Own Self Be True. Courtesy of the artist.

TH: One of the things that I really got from this was being introduced to artists I didn’t know. Also, I don’t work digitally—I like the tools a lot, but since I retired from the university, I have access to fewer of them—so it was kind of fun to get back into that just a tiny bit.

It did make me aware that some artists (my peers probably) were less technically inclined. It’s fun to have those groups together. Someday we’ll have a party. I’m looking forward to having all those people meet each other.

KG: Yes, and as someone who is more comfortable with digital interfaces, I really enjoyed working with the artists who weren’t as familiar with those tools. It was important that everybody could be brought along. 

LS: If someone could see behind the scenes of the project, what would they be surprised by?

TH: Our secret power might be that I worked in libraries for most of my career, so I know a lot of librarians. Katie knows librarians. We’re both printmakers, and we know printmakers. Katie said—how did you put it?

KG: Librarians love to share, and printmakers love to distribute.

TH: There is a power in calling it a library. It could have been framed as an online exhibit of artists’ books, but affiliating with an institution that’s powerful in a democratic way felt really beautiful. 

Cover and double page spread of Q: Quarintimacy by Keli Rylance. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Yes, I’m interested in that choice to make it a library, especially during this pandemic. The library remains a trusted community institution at a time when art institutions are coming under fire for racial inequity and massive layoffs. What is special about libraries, and how does that relate to the art world?

KG: I think about libraries as ideally bringing things that might otherwise be out of reach into a more inviting space. One reason why this project felt important now was because there has been a collective loss of public space. We wanted to make one small but welcoming place that gave our audience permission to explore, and to have access to our community. 

TH: It really did come out of that experience of feeling a loss. We tried to make it transparent for users that it was for people. It is a gift. The thing about libraries is that circulation is a really powerful idea. These books don’t exist in any editions; they’re not for sale.

I just learned from a colleague, Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, who works at the Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology that she is going to print out every one of the books and catalog them. I’m interested in how that will work—they will be in a library as well as being part of this idea of a library.

KG: There’s something potent about these editions as endless. Among its many duplicates, your book won’t have a unique number—but it’s special because it’s the one that you made.

TH: Yes. And that also invites the possibility of the audience becoming inspired to make a book of their own design.

LS: How can artists get involved? Are you still looking for contributions? 

TH: We curated by selecting the artists up front, and trusted that people would know what to do if they stayed within the format that we described. We didn’t edit content and we didn’t solicit specific content, although we did add content ourselves.

KG: We will continue to add books by invitation, but we are interested in seeing work we aren’t yet familiar with. If an artist wants to make sure that we have seen their work and will take it into consideration, they can email us at quarantinepubliclibrary@gmail.com. Another way to get involved is to make your own book using the pagination template on our tutorial page. Whether or not it is part of the collection, we want to see it.

TH: I have this fantasy of someone sending us a picture showing that they made all the books—the whole library! That’s what I’m waiting to see.

An assortment of QPL books. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.