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Rare Books: Artists' and fine press books

A guide to finding and using rare books in the Bodleian Library

Scope of the collections

The Bodleian’s artists’ book collection - or more properly collections - are broad and international in scope, ranging from artists’ illustrated books and livres d’artistes to concrete and visual poetry, conceptual art and fine printing, as well as the modern book arts; included are unique works, limited editions, periodicals and democratic multiples. Our core purpose is to support the teaching and research of the University of Oxford and the collection is in active and constant use by students, researchers and visiting groups. Pieces are regularly on show in our galleries.

As a major research library, our artists’ books collection is supported by a wealth of other resources, including outstanding collections of illustrated books and manuscripts from all eras and geographical areas; world-class and growing collections of photography and photobooks; significant holdings of private press publications and ephemera, and secondary sources including reference monographs, exhibition catalogues and bibliographies.

Historic organizational structure and collecting practices mean that today the collection is physically dispersed across libraries in Oxford, and researchers using these materials may find themselves visiting a number of distinct sites and collections across Oxford. Significant collections can be found in the Sackler and Taylor libraries as well as at the Ashmolean Museum. Since the opening of the Weston Library in 2015 there has been a more focussed policy of acquiring examples of artist’s books and associated reference materials through the Rare Books department at the Weston library. 

New works are added to the collection each year through purchase, donation and bequest. Copyright deposit has been a vital source of artists’ publications and continues to be widely supported by artists working in the UK. Our collecting interests are wide-ranging and we buy works which support material we already hold as well as seeking to fill gaps in our collection. We are particularly interested in innovative and challenging books, and works that see beyond the codex or explore transformation, whether through destruction, growth or clever engineering, are an important area of collection building.

Finding aids

All of our artists’ books and fine press publications are described on our online catalogue, SOLO. However, there is no single physical collection of fine press and artists' books; the varied and often serendipitous way artists' books have been acquired by the library, along with the challenges of cataloguing this kind of material, mean there is simply no way of browsing them all. While it is quite straight forward to find a known work by searching in SOLO, it’s really quite hard for researchers, and even library staff, to get a view across the whole field. Work is underway to better understand and describe what we have and to make our holdings more easily findable. We are adding subject headings to improve navigation and many works can be found by searching for the subject ‘artists books’ while limiting your search scope to physical resources.  

For help finding material in your area of research please email rare.books@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

Bibliographical press

One of the Bodleian's presses in use

The Bodleian’s Centre for the Study of the Book runs the Bibliographical Press, a fully operating letterpress workshop in the Old Bodleian Library. The Press exists as a space for artistic experimentation in the book arts as well as for the practical teaching and study of historical printing techniques. Since 2017 it has supported a series of printers-in-residence who use letterpress printing within the tradition of artistic book-making.